Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book: The Knowledge-Value Revolution by Taichi Sakaiya (learnings from an out-dated book)

The 'business' section of any charity bookshop is a pretty depressing sight, being little more than a brief stopping point before the final destination: the recycling centre. It is from this nether-region that I plucked "The Knowledge-Value Revolution", an obscure futurist book written in 1991, well before the internet era.

The Knowledge-Value Revolution is sprawling in its thesis and it can be difficult to grasp exactly what the author is getting at. Broadly speaking, Sakaiya surveys the history of civilised man in an effort to pick out trends, to draw out how we got to the present day, and to predict what our future may look like based on the social paradigms that he expects to dominate. The central transition he sees underway is a move from an industrial society to a knowledge-value society, where knowledge is defined in a much broader sense than we see it (see quotes below for more). 

The book was was worth a scan read as it reminds us that even before information technology went into hyperdrive with the internet, a knowledge revolution of a sort was already underway, at least according to Sakaiya. Also, the book is a work of original thought and is littered with many interesting observations and ponderings that that act as a springboard for the reader's own thoughts, which is always a good thing.

  • Sakaiya says that to search for the literal meaning of 'knoweldge-value' is to miss the point, that there is no strict equivalent to the Japanese word, 'chi'. In the context of the book is can mean 'knowledge', 'wisdom', 'intelligence', 'sophistication'. Context provide the pointers as to which meaning is being stressed. Me: Provides an important learning about communication and the importance of context, especially when direct translation is involved.
  • 'it is not enough to simply predict that there will be change. Those who live with the actuality of what society will become are naturally most anxious to know what sort of world will emerge in the wake of these changes. Me: There is an element of reflexivity at play here. Also, speaks to the futility of forecasting and the innate desire to know our future vs living with uncertainty.
  • 'The US as a culture possess a tremendous capacity of dispatching information throughout the world, but there are only a few routes that news travelling in the direction from Asia to America can take'. Me: Universality of English language has historically made the West a culture exporter not importer, let alone to speak of the other forces.
  • 'I can't help thinking that to take a wave theory derived from observations of industrial society and apply it to the medieval experience is a perilous enterprise.' Me: Brings to mind the adage that history may rhyme, but it rarely repeats.  
  • 'It is easy for the Japanese of my generation, who have known nothing but rapid economic growth their entire lives, to assume such growth is a natural state.' Me: It did all change for Japan, as they entered into a stagnation that has lasted several decades. There are lessons for house price growth and other economic and social characteristics that we experience and project to be the new norm. We are lulled into a false sense of security (or the opposite), as we anchor to the recent past and to our recent experience. 
  • Posits that rapid world economic growth kick started with cheap energy, as giant oil fields were discovered from the 1930s onwards. In real terms, the cost of oil fell and fell. Technologies developed to take advantage > synthetic fibres (nylon had been invented but became economical to mass produce) > led to surpluses of cotton, wool, etc > Farmers started growing crops such as soybeans instead. Combined with chemical fertilisers, agricultural production took off and food production grew at an even faster pace than population growth. Cheap energy shaped the modern world, affecting everything from transport to manufacturing to farming. 
  • A useful reminder on signalling of wealth: 'When it comes to labour intensive enterprises, nothing can compare with the Japanese garden. Each tree must be twisted and tortured into an exotic and entirely artificial shape every spring and every fall. Let nature take its course for even two years and the damage is irreversible. Therefore, large-scale gardens in impeccable condition presented irrefutable evidence of the property owners having maintained a formidable staff over decades.
  • Rapid economic growth reduced the need for labour and the changing environment was reflected in the Japanese aesthetic. 'Abuse and contempt are heaped on households that employ too many domestics.' The modern aesthetic is concrete, glass, air conditioning, and switching systems. Convenience dominates. Materials and energy are the name of the game when it comes to defining luxury. The shift went from conserving resources to reserving manpower. Americans arrived this consumerist ethic well before the Japanese.Using up a lot of 'stuff' became the spiritual core, a type of materialism or consumerist philosophy (influenced by cheap energy leading to cheap materials).
  • 'Anything that contributes to this purpose we have come to deem 'rational', while other activities tend to be dismissed as 'irrational and anachronistic' and worthy of bemused contempt.'
  • By the time the 18th century was over, the ascetic medieval philosophy that rejected greed and sought beauty in restraint and the repression of desire was on the way out. Me: a good lesson to not get caught up in the aesthetic of the time as a fixed, or an innately 'right' aesthetic, but as a choice.
  • 'The cultural values of today's advanced nations are based on ethic and aesthetics of industrialism.'
  • Discusses the 'empathetic impulse' to conserve energy, based on the pessimistic outlook for energy. Me - it was a misplaced forecast that we would see oil fields drying up ...yet, real or iluusory, the view affected the aesthetic. Based on the response to the recent oil price spike, it's safe to say that price is the biggest driver of this aesthetic Sakaiya goes on to discuss how the recession of the early 1980s led to a rise in demand for smaller car, and how the trend didn't fully reverse when the economy recovered.
  • As environment issues grew, the aesthetic changed: growing satiation with material goods and a yearning for 'spiritual riches' as well as greater 'quality of life'. Quality vs quantity.
  • Argues that in the future, the 'knowedge value' inherent in a product will be the key driver of its value. i.e. becomes about how much wisdom, self-worth, accumulated wisdom of the maker, etc is in the product?
  • 'What gives a society its identity, what makes it what it is or determines what it becomes, is not simply the sum of what it has or what exists in it, but what is has in it that it considers important.' Me: Catch 22? What is important is that which is scarce? Brings in ideas about self determination, the existential question of creating meaning when there is none, and imagined realities. 
  • Note, unlike underlying intrinsic commodity values, which may be cyclical, when a certain knowledge-value is no longer prized, Sakaiya says that it is unlikely to come back into fashion.
  • Talks about how computers became able to convert knowledge (data) in to wisdom (information judgement based on a comparison of situations). Foresees growth of knowledge and wisdom at home and in the workplace, leading to an abundance of wisdom. 'The creation of knowledge-value in and of itself will be the main source of economic growth and corporate profits.'
  • Knowledge-value permeates everything. It is not just about services but about embedding this value in products, in the design, image, etc. The aesthetic becomes one where there is more renunciation of material goods. Marketing becomes not about increasing awareness but about adding knowledge value, raising the utility curve of the consumer. The value created by marketing in a knowledge-value world has an independent subjective existence.

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