It Is Common Knowledge

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-07-02

Centuries of scholarship and financial competition have been shaped by the fact that knowledge was scarce—that is, in the economic sense of being something that had to be paid for.

Knowledge is power, power yields wealth, wealth enables access to knowledge: Its been a positive feedback loop, whether the knowledge in question was a map to the Indies or the source code for Windows. Yes, theres been a tradition of academic knowledge being shared, but thats been academic unless you could pay a research staff to filter through the flood.

The feedback loop connecting wealth and knowledge is being broken, though, as public online databases become the norm—even in fields where success was once defined by privileged access to primary sources. Last month, for example, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey released the results of its first year of astronomical data collection, giving any Internet user free access to the worlds largest collection of images and spectra (with four more years of collection planned). The National Science Foundation is funding a National Science Digital Library, a constellation of portals comprising collections in fields such as engineering, science and mathematics, with planned availability next year. By 2010, MITs OpenCourseWare project will freely share lecture notes, course outlines, syllabuses, reading lists and assignments for as many as 2,000 courses. Even today, amateur investigators in almost any field enjoy better facilities for free research and analysis than full-time professionals could buy in previous decades.

It used to be that your wealth or your contacts determined what you could know. Our network of knowledge changes that. Everybody knows.

From now on, finding the sharpest needles in the communal haystack of data will determine who succeeds.

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