• Email
  • Print

The Deluge

The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States

by Fritz Machlup
Princeton University Press, $7.50

Modern man’s urge to amass even greater quantities of knowledge seems to have no bounds. No matter what its value, quality, or purpose, he seems to feel that any increase in knowledge is, in itself, a good thing. The consumption of knowledge has acquired an almost sacral character. It was not always so. A caliph, obeying what he conceived the Will of Allah, burned the library of Alexandria, and many a Christian thinker shared St. Ambrose’s opinion that “To discuss the nature and position of the earth does not help us in our life to come.” But in modern society, knowledge is power; it connotes security as well as prestige, and the man who is not knowledgeable is truly a pariah.

Yet the knowledge that is craved today tends to be very different from that sought by the cultivated elite of an earlier age. The present-day knowledgeable man may lack any cultivation, and the well-informed person may be but a cheerful robot. The increase of information may indeed have led, contrary to the belief of the Enlightenment, to a decrease in rationality.

In this monumental work, Professor Fritz Machlup of Princeton University surveys the “knowledge industries” of the United States and estimates their contribution to the total human knowledge. He discriminates between types of knowledge, but the very idea of calling “knowledge” anything from information about Elizabeth Taylor’s love life to the knowledge of Greek is a frightening “modern” perversion. The amount of information the author conveys is staggering, and even though one might have wished him to be more critical in his approach, to consider perhaps the modern fetishism of knowledge in a manner similar to that displayed by Marx when he described the fetishism of commodities, one cannot but admire the assiduity and ingenuity with which he has pursued his task.

The activity of telling anybody anything, by word of mouth or in writing, is considered knowledge-production by Machlup, and a person exclusively engaged in this activity is considered to belong to a knowledge-producing occupation. Using the subjective meaning of the known to the knower as his criterion, Machlup distinguishes five types of knowledge: 1) practical knowledge; 2) intellectual knowledge, that is, general culture and the satisfying of intellectual curiosity; 3) pastime knowledge, that is, knowledge satisfying non-intellectual curiosity or the desire for light entertainment and emotional stimulation; 4) spiritual or religious knowledge; and 5) unwanted knowledge, accidentally acquired and aimlessly retained.

This is a useful classification—even though it might make philosophers shudder. It might help the reader to some relevant assessment of the quality of our culture, though the author himself, beholden as he is to the classical economist’s shibboleth of free consumer’s choice, refrains for the most part from doing so. Sometimes the figures themselves tell the story, as when Machlup cites a content analysis of 130 daily papers classifying the knowledge conveyed (exclusive of advertisements) as 51.4 per cent pastime and only 33.4 per cent intellectual; or when he finds that classifications of broadcasting time of a series of stations show that 65 per cent was devoted to pastime, 7 per cent to unwanted, and 12 per cent to intellectual knowledge. But most of the time Machlup’s bare reporting impedes the task of searching for standards. One might be tempted to write a whole chapter on the quality of American culture around the fact that, as Machlup reports without comment, sales of greeting cards in 1958 amounted to $275 million—more that double the sales of 1947, and roughly double the expenditures for libraries.

Machlup’s over-all figures are perhaps of even wider interest than his careful calculations for special segments of the knowledge industry. He finds that the total annual expenditures for knowledge reached the staggering figure of $136,436 million in 1958. Of this, 44 per cent was in Education, 8 percent in Research and Development, 28 per cent in Media of Communications, and 20 per cent in Information Machines and Information Services. No less than 29 per cent of the Gross National Product (adjusted) was turned out by the knowledge industry! Furthermore, the relative share of GNP taken by the knowledge industries seems to be growing. Knowledge-production increased by 8.8 per cent per year in recent years while the production of other goods and services increased by only 3.7 per cent. In addition, certain branches of knowledge-production increased much faster than the rest of the industry. Thus electronic computers had a growth rate of 104.4 per cent in the single year of 1958.

In addition to calculating the contributions of the various sectors of the knowledge industry to the total product, Machlup also focuses attention on the occupational composition of the labor force. He finds that the knowledge-producing occupations increased from 10.7 per cent of the labor force in 1900 to 31.6 per cent in 1959. If one adds to this figure the potential members of the labor force who worked on producing knowledge in their own heads by going to school, one finds that roughly 43 per cent of the potential civilian labor force now consists of knowledge-transmitters and full-time knowledge receivers. I know of no better index of the revolutionary character of modern industrial society than this bare figure.

There is one part of this book to which I must take strong exception: the section on education. Here Machlup departs from his general cool appraisal of the facts at hand and engages in a very sharp polemical attack on the educational “industry” he surveys. He finds prolonged compulsory schooling wasteful and detrimental to society, and to talented and untalented students alike, and therefore proposes that the compulsory school attendance age be lowered to fourteen years. (He also takes a rather dim view of the value of most college education.) He thinks it possible to upgrade school requirements so that the fourteen-year-old will know as much as the sixteen-year-old knows now. Here Machlup is venturing into territory which he has not charted as well as his economic data. His supporting evidence is scanty; he seems to forget, for example, that European school systems, which he uses for comparisons, are, on the secondary level, elite schools which cannot be compared with American high schools at all. He is generally only imperfectly aware of the sociological and psychological reasons which are generally adduced for a lengthened school age, relying instead on the rather mechanical idea that the same content could be crammed into little heads over shorter periods of time. And while he pays lip service to the need for moral and humanistic education, he seems in the main to rest his argument on the idea that factual knowledge such as mathematics could be taught in accelerated ways. But even if we grant this, it does not mean that the minds of thirteen-year-olds are equally receptive, say, to an appreciation of our cultural heritage as are adolescents in later stages of development. If the “Machlup Plan” were adopted it would result in a further decrease of general standards of excellence and in a widening of the gulf between an educated upper stratum and a “trained” but uneducated working class of menials.

These then are some of the characteristics of the deluge of knowledge which has descended upon us. Critical assessment ought now to start from where Machlup has left off. We ought to ask whether the increase of these variegated types of knowledge has made us happier or wiser, whether it has enriched or impoverished the quality of our lives, whether the increased production of intellectual knowledge necessarily had to be accompanied by an even greater increase of trivialized and trashy knowledge. Might it not be time to expect a reasonable community to control the indiscriminate flow of knowledge? Has knowledge, destined to increase man’s mastery, assumed a fetishistic domination over him? Has modern industrial society perhaps created another Frankenstein monster? Now that we have learned so much about the quantity of knowledge, we certainly must go on to inquire more searchingly about its quality. It might be well to recall Freud’s dictum, “Protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than reception of stimuli.”

  • Email
  • Print