Common Knowledge

Posted in Arts

I wouldn’t be a member of the blogosphere (ugh) if I didn’t link to this year’s Edge Annual Question: What is your dangerous idea? Like any good blog meme, this is a good way to waste three hours. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out this gem from Daniel C. Dennett:

The human population is still growing, but at nowhere near the rate that the population of memes is growing. There is competition for the limited space in human brains for memes, and something has to give. Thanks to our incessant and often technically brilliant efforts, and our apparently insatiable appetites for novelty, we have created an explosively growing flood of information, in all media, on all topics, in every genre. Now either (1) we will drown in this flood of information, or (2) we won’t drown in it. Both alternatives are deeply disturbing…

What will happen to common knowledge in the future? I do think our ancestors had it easy: aside from all the juicy bits of unshared gossip and some proprietary trade secrets and the like, people all knew pretty much the same things, and knew that they knew the same things. There just wasn’t that much to know. Won’t people be able to create and exploit illusions of common knowledge in the future, virtual worlds in which people only think they are in touch with their cyber‐neighbors?

This is something that’s already happening to mass culture. TV networks lament the increasing selection of cable and satellite channels as one of the reasons network ratings are down, but I think it might have something to do with this idea. How can you create a television show that everyone likes? It’s not as easy as it used to be.

So then what happens to television? Without a mass audience for a television show, the advertising business model doesn’t work anymore. What happens to art? What happens to literature, or comedy, or cinema? All these forms of expression seem to be getting more and more specialized and catering less and less to mass culture.

Many of us are guilty of judging the worthiness of others by the obscure references they pick up on. If someone recognizes a t‐shirt I’m wearing, or the etymology of my username, or a throwaway movie quote, then I think more highly of that person. In the future, if each of us is the guardian of a mindful of unique ideas, the person who picks up on your reference is destined to be your life partner, your tangent in a global Venn diagram of knowledge.