Why I Became a Knowledge Manager

In 2003, my then once-and-future-boss Piers Bocock gave me a new title, “Knowledge Manager.” It felt comfortable and satisfying. Up until that point, my career had been fairly accidental and unintentional, driven mostly by other people wanting me to work for them, more than by my own professional ambitions. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the groundwork for my knowledge-manager-ness had been laid in the 1970s.

When I was seven years old and living in England, the BBC aired James Burke’s series Connections, which is about the history of technological change. At the end of the last episode of the first series, Burke gives a monologue about the importance of computers. During much of the monologue, the camera is focused on his face, as though he is speaking directly and personally to the viewer.

He talks about computers, power, and the process of “helping people toward knowledge” as keys to the future. Remember, this was produced when computers were just emerging from the military/financial/corporate sphere. The Apple II and the TRS-80 were released the year before the program aired, but in 1980 when I was in 5th grade and we got an Apple II, I was the only kid in my class with access to a “home computer”. So his prescience here is remarkable.

When I re-watched the series in my mid-30s, I realized I had absorbed his advice whole-heartedly. Listening to that closing monologue, I felt like he was reciting something I had memorized years ago, something which had become a core piece of my personal value system, but without any conscious memory of where it had come from.

The words of James Burke, from Connections, Episode 10: “Yesterday, Tomorrow, and You” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kv3pBAlisVA; my slightly edited transcript below starts at 40:56 of the video.)

If Part One of the specialization of knowledge happened in the 15th century when Johann Gutenberg came up with the printing press and helped scientists to talk their own kind of gibberish to each other on the printed page, easier than they’d ever done it before, then this [the computer] is Part Two. Only this is no book that you can leaf through and get a rough idea of what it’s talking about.  This is the future. Because if you tell a computer everything you know about something, it will juggle the mix and come up with a prediction: Do this, and you’ll get that. 

And if you have information and a computer, you too can look into the future—and that is power. Commercial power, political power, power to change things. You want some of that power, easy. Go get yourself a PhD. Otherwise, the way things have become, forget it.  

… But never mind the machinery. What about the stuff this lot uses, the raw material that will change our future in ways you will never believe—information. Not the facts, it’s too late for that. What you do with the facts. Because there you’re into probability theory, choosing one of the alternate futures and actually making it happen. And how does the man in the street get involved in that game? He doesn’t.   

So when the next major change comes out of the computers, double-checked and pre-packaged, it looks increasingly like you’ve only got two options open to you. 

(1) Do nothing. Stick your thumb in your mouth. Switch your mind to neutral. 

(2) Do what people have done for centuries when machines did things they didn’t want: Overreact. Strike out. Sabotage the machines for good. Do you want that? [Somewhat overwrought montage of smashing and exploding technology.] But once you start, can you stop? Is our technology so interconnected that when you destroy one machine, you automatically trigger total destruction of the entire life-support system?  

Well, that’s no better a solution than any of the others, is it? So, in the end, have we learned anything from this look [the entire 10 episode series] at why the world turned out the way it did  that’s of any use for us, in our future? Something, I think. That the key to why things change is the key to everything: How easy is it for knowledge to spread? And that in the past, the people who made change happen were the people who had that knowledge—whether they were craftsmen or kings. 

Today, the people who make things change, the people who have that knowledge, are the scientists and the technologists who are the true driving force of humanity … [I cut out a bit here about art/politics – SP]

Scientific knowledge is hard to take [compared to the products of human emotion– art/literature/politics], because it removes the reassuring crutches of opinion and ideology, and leaves only what is demonstrably true about the world. And the reason why so many people may be thinking about throwing away those crutches is because thanks to science and technology they have begun to know that they don’t know so much. And if they are have to have more say in what happens to their lives, more freedom to develop their abilities to the full, they have to be helped toward that knowledge that they know exists, and that they don’t possess

And by “helped toward that knowledge”, I don’t mean “Give everyone a computer and say ‘Help yourself’.” Where would you even start?  

No, I mean: Try to find ways to translate the knowledge, and to teach us to ask the right questions. See, we are on the edge of a revolution in communications technology that is going to make that more possible than ever before. Or, if it [the translation/helping] is not done, to cause an explosion of knowledge that will leave those of us who don’t have access to it as powerless as if we were deaf, dumb, and blind. And I don’t think most people want that. 

 So, what do we do about it? I don’t know. But maybe a good start would be to recognize within yourself the ability to understand anything, because that ability is there, as long as it’s explained clearly enough. And then go and ask for explanations. And if you’re thinking right now “What do I ask for?”, ask yourself if there’s anything in your life that you want changed. That’s where to start. 

Screen Shot from 47:42 of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and You
James Burke’s comforting smile in the face of of a daunting future

At the end of this very serious, furrowed-brow, issues-of-importance monologue, he smiles, very slightly. It is an avuncular and gentle and kindly smile, with a hint of knowing in it. I remembered the smile. He was smiling at me, through a television in London in 1978. He was speaking directly to me, and I was listening.