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The Midas touch. Living in a world of abundant knowledge

July 7th, 2019

In the middle ages, Timbuktu was fabulously wealthy. It controlled the gold trade and it had all the riches that you would expect from that. Mansa Musa, the sultan, had a fortune that you couldn’t dream away, you couldn’t wish away.  

The sultan, as a good Muslim, performed the hajj, making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Being fabulously wealthy as well as a good Muslim, he travelled with a retinue of 60,000 men. All along the way, he gave gold to the poor and did good works.

He was like the sultan in one of the stories in the One Thousand Nights And One Night. However, his good deeds had terrible consequences. He gave so much gold away that he destabilised every country he passed through. The foundations of their economy, built on the scarcity of gold, were rocked.

Less dramatically but with long-lasting effects, when Spain conquered the New World, the vast quantities of silver and gold brought home caused enduring inflation in Europe for centuries. El Dorado hid dangers.

When something previously scarce becomes much more common, we value it much less. If the streets of London really were paved with gold, that would imply that Londoners didn’t value the stuff very much.

Suddenly, we find ourselves in a world of abundant knowledge that is effortlessly accessible. This is a blessing, but a disruptive one. It is an irony that the current era is often referred to as an Information Age and that we are said to live in a Knowledge Economy. The value attributable to raw information has declined vertiginously. Knowledge now litters our world like oranges in the streets of Seville and most of it is about as valued.

There are exceptions. Personal information, time-sensitive information and information exclusively held by one provider are all examples of information that may still have substantial value. The norm, however, is for information to be freely available and thus customers expect to pay, if at all, only for convenient access to it.

This has disrupted many industries. Whole professional castes were initially built around their control of access to information: lawyers, doctors and journalists, to give three examples. The barriers are being broken down. To retain relevance, professionals need to prioritise selling other services. Doctors and lawyers have positioned themselves with success by selling their skill in interpreting the data (in fairness, they had been doing this long before their knowledge base became widely publicly available).  

Journalists have had less success with this approach: their skill in interpreting data has not been demonstrated to enough potential customers to be sufficiently superior to amateurs for them to retain their role as paid guides to the modern world. Why buy a dog if you can bark yourself?

Politics has also been disrupted by this abundance of information. More than in most areas, the rewards for using false, misleading or partial information are high. If a doctor gives a patient incorrect information, the patient may die. If a politician gives a voter incorrect information, the politician may get elected.

Even so, the same general point stands. For generations, politicians have presented themselves as experts: “the man in Whitehall knows best”. Now he doesn’t. Anyone who is interested can bury themselves in reliable official statistics, public reports (and those of thinktanks) and review comparative studies from other countries. 

Civil servants have trained their entire career to weigh competing policies, but politicians, the decision-makers, generally have not. A citizen who is well-informed on his or her chosen subject will probably leave the politician flatfooted.

This is a career crisis. If politicians are not going to offer policy, what are they going to offer?

If there’s one thing that the politics of the last few years has shown, it’s that standing as a leader who puts capable administration before ideology does not have the same appeal to the public that it used to do. The public are looking for rousing themes, not triangulation.

Commentators have written much about the rise of populism. Certainly Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini match this well. It doesn’t really explain the parallel success of the Greens across Europe, the Lib Dems’ recent resurgence in Britain or for that matter Jeremy Corbyn and Die Linke in Germany. Other commentators have written much about the fragmentation of politics, which is certainly not happening in the US and is a questionable explanation in Britain, given the two main parties scored their highest collective tally for generations in 2017.

I suggest that both of these explanations capture some but not all of what is going on. We live in a world where information is near enough free for anyone who wants it and so politicians selling evidence-based policies have been correspondingly devalued. Those who can peddle simple and easy big ideas are rising in value relative to them.

As a result, politics by mood board is in the ascendancy. Politicians about whom the public say “say what you like about X but…” can say what they like.  Parties whose policies can be summed up in three words will take votes off parties with nuanced policy platforms. There’s a reason why Nigel Farage is abandoning the idea of a manifesto for the Brexit party.

Still, it feels that politicians have yet fully to grasp what the public needs in the age of abundant information. By and large, so far the populists are strikingly unpopular among the populace as a whole, with loyal followings but a low ceiling on their support. At some point a gifted politician with a captivating personality is going to articulate a simple vision that forges a consensus. That politician will have the Midas touch.

Alastair Meeks