Knowledge economy

by Rob Horning

6 February 2006


BusinessWeek‘s current cover story is an account of how the American economy is actually really healthy despite negative savings rates, a current-account deficit, and inverted yield curves and the housing slowdown and so on. Because official stats count education and R&D expenses as consumption rather than investment, the article claims, the true savings rate—investment for the future—is much greater than reported, and America is well-positioned to continue “generating cool, game-changing ideas.” It’s always a bad sign when business journalists call something “cool”—it invariably means they are bullshitting and hoping that hype can mask something statistically unsound. The article stresses that invisible investment flows produce innovation, that intangible investments in human capital will begin to pay dividends down the road in such profitable things as “product design and brand equity.” These are the fruits of the knowledge economy, to which advanced economies preseumably move when they are through manufacturing tangible things and moving workers beyond subsistance living.

What bothers me about this is that “knowledge” is casually linked with qualities that are anti-thinking, things that rely on prejudice and the manipulation of feeling and fashion anxiety—that’s what brand equity and, to a lesser degree, design concerns amount to. So America’s knowledge economy actually channels its brainpower into these sorts of concerns—how to make Pepsi more attractive than Coke, how to advertise the cool, game-changing Apple products, how to design a more handsome towel rack to sell at Target. Is this what capitalism in general does to intelligence, reifies it into useful “knowledge” or “information” that we then attempt to market and measure? If we begin to measure education in this way, in terms of how it contributes to the growth of GDP, what forms of learning will be left out, and long will it be before we call for the abolishing of these useless forms of thinking?

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