Friday, August 16, 2019

Dateline 1945 – The “Knowledge” Economy Propaganda Machine

 One hundred years ago, Everett Dean Martin was appointed to serve as chairman of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures in an effort to advance the emerging movie entertainment genre.  Having spent nearly a decade of his life as the First Congregational Church in Lombard, Illinois, he became a national evangelist for the psychological paradox he saw unfolding with the proliferation of technology outpacing education of citizens sufficient to keep them fully informed of how to consume media and messages.  Having seen how the technology of late 19th and early 20th century religion had been effectively co-opted by business, politics, and civil society, he campaigned against those who appealed to self-serving and “ignoble” instincts to shape public behavior, belief, actions and thought.  In the wake of the demagoguery that inflamed the horrors of World War I, he knew that, “the crowd is a state of mind,” and the capacity for masses to fixate on delusional ideology gave near omnipotence to the “enemies of humanity”.  In his 1920 essay The Mob Mind vs. Civil Liberty, Martin anticipated the “pandemonium of propaganda” that was inevitable when technology afforded greater access to ideology than to expansive and liberal education.  It is with some irony that the motion picture board to which he was appointed would one day help fulfill his greatest fears.

“Certain crowd-movements in America today give marked evidence of this unconscious motivation. Notice how both the radical and reactionary elements behave when, as is frequently the case with both, the crowd-spirit comes over them. Certain radicals, who are fascinated with the idea of the Russian Revolution, are still proclaiming sentiments of human brotherhood, peace, and freedom, while unconsciously they are doing just what their enemies accuse them of-playing with the welcome ideas of violence, class war, and proletarian dictatorship. And conservative crowds, while ostensibly defending American traditions and ideals against destructive foreign influence, are with their own hands daily desecrating many of the finest things which America has given to the world in its struggle of more than a century for freedom and justice. Members of each crowd, while blissfully unaware of the incompatibility of their own motives and professions, have no illusions about those of the counter-crowd. Each crowd sees in the professions of its antagonist convincing proof of the insincerity and hypocrisy of the other side. To the student of social philosophy both are right and both wrong. All propaganda is lies, and every crowd is a deceiver, but its first and worst deception is that of itself.”

This critique, written one hundred years ago today could be republished in 2019 with no editing and be seen as the epitaph to the century past.

Martin died in 1941.  He didn’t live to see the immediate fulfillment of his worst fears.  The V-2 rocket, the U-boat, signal intelligence and encryption, broadcast propaganda all unleashed the inhumane fury that he sought do desperately to warn humanity against.  When in response to the industrial consequence of largely German propaganda-fueled innovation the Allies realized that they had been bested, a more malignant propaganda economy was born.  Unable to compete with superior ideas and innovations for the most part (save the notable atomic initiative), the industries of Allied economies in the 1940s were dictated by espionage-acquired intercepts and salvaged technologies – not by the ingenuity of their engineers and scientists.  From 1945 – 1959, Operation Paperclip (the collection of German engineers and scientists through overt and covert operations) did more to fuel the second half of the twentieth century than any other single action.  While telling the story of technological supremacy to reinforce the “winning” narrative dear to the US psyche, the nation was duped into believing that Americans were dictating the industrial technology agenda rather than scaling and appropriating the intellect of others.  We weren’t defining what America needed.  Rather, we were reflexively responding to evidence of the supremacy of “others”.  Remember, the modern computer was not born of U.S. or British science.  British, US, and Australian intelligence were driven to produce countermeasures to the superior technology that Japanese and German cypher engineers and mathematicians invented.

I spent the past few days in Boston and Silicon Valley.  The frequency with which I was accosted with the term made popular by Peter Drucker fifty years ago in his book The Age of Discontinuity – the “Knowledge Economy” – was deafening.  At one point, I snapped.

“We don’t live in a Knowledge Economy,” I said.  “We have been living in the Propaganda Economy.”

The words barely escaped my lips before I realized that this observation has been what I’ve spent the past three decades of my life attempting to overcome.  Reflecting on the dire prophecies of Everett Martin, recounting the socioeconomic adoration of Peter Drucker, I realized that since the end of the Second World War, we’ve abdicated “knowledge” for reflexive and compulsive enterprises which serve not the benefit of humanity in the main but rather seek to satiate the unconsidered consumption of incremental industrial output.  We are told what to fear (and desire) – morbidity, mortality, economic and egoic existential ‘threats’.  Then we’re told what and how to consume antidotes for manufactured “needs”.  We’re deluded into “choosing” among indecipherable “alternatives” (Apple vs. Android; Prescription vs. Wholistic; Industrial vs. Organic; Green vs. Polluting) while being ignorant to the ever-narrowing aperture delimiting unconstrained innovation.  We have over 10 million patents on less than 50,000 products.  We have the proliferation of “information” curated by advertiser-fueled “technologies” without considering the inherent influence or bias that shapes the sanctioning of messages.  And against this backdrop, we hear the cacophony of hypnotic academicians, advisors, politicians, pundits, and industrialists celebrating “knowledge”.

I recently lectured in Palo Alto.  The room was filled with the venture funded experts at the “cutting edge” of technology.  For three hours I described the consequence of incremental vs. fundamental innovation.  In simple biologic, physiologic and chemical terms, I described how they could integrate known, established, science to make disruptive impacts in their respective areas of work.  While I spoke, several individuals frantically sought to ‘google’ the concepts, terms, and research I was referencing commenting on how none of them were ‘trained’ to think in the wide-ranging scope of my talk.  From photosynthesis to membrane oligomerization; from Particle Swarm mathematics to lossless encryption; from genetics to social psychology…the range was extensive…and entirely necessary and effective.

“I think we need to rethink how we think,” was the comment articulated by one of the participants in the end.  “Nobody is thinking like this.”

“I hope you don’t think like me,” I responded.  “I just hope you think.”

Walter Powell wrote that, “the key component of the knowledge economy is a greater reliance on intellectual capabilities than on physical inputs or natural resources,” in The Annual Review of Sociology in 2004.  In 1969, Drucker polarized labor into those who work with their hands or the heads.  And herein lies the fallacy upon which the propaganda is built.  For “knowledge” to enable an economy, it cannot be the curation of the observations and recitations of others.  Rather it must be the synthesis of cognitive acuity, analog practice, and a fundamental curiosity born not of consumer expedience but rather from qualitative examination of conscious existence.  In other words, if the ‘problem’ is what you’re ‘solving’ than you’re contributing to a Propaganda Economy.  Because in a genuine Knowledge Economy, we’re arranging matter and energy to optimize existence – not “solving problems” born of myopic perspective shaped by myths, mantras, and media. 

Returning to Everett Martin one more time – his genuine admonition to work towards adult education which would outpace (and hold in check) technological development is one that bears consideration.  The notion that by our second decade we have acquired all the “education” we need to function in society supports the crowd thinking against which he unsuccessfully warned.  It’s time that we enter into continuous education.  And start it by turning off your computer, your iPhone, or your electronic device and read something written before 1945.  See if you could learn a thing or two from knowledge before it was so economically hijacked!


1 comment:

  1. As a product of the Drucker Management Propaganda Meme Pool, I have been sloshing around in the knowledge economy cesspool for decades

    Save doing a complete re-architecting of my human memenome, I need to keep repeating David Martin's words as a mantra until it sticks...

    "In a genuine Knowledge Economy, we’re arranging matter and energy to optimize existence – not “solving problems” born of myopic perspective shaped by myths, mantras, and media..."


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave