Exploring Contradictions of a Knowledge-Based Society

blogimage2We are said to be living in the era of a knowledge-based society, at least in the developed world, and coming soon to you (if not already arrived) in the developing world. “Knowledge-based” sounds so enlightened, doesn’t it, as if we all inclusively are embraced by the promise of a higher level of consciousness. But, hold on a minute.

What does `knowledge-based’ really mean? Who is included, who is not, and who actually benefits? Once you examine the rationale behind this concept, is it an illusion or, conversely, even a vision we really want to support?

For I raise yet another question. If society is becoming so brilliant, why are so many people out of work, from all generations and across multiple sectors? Government spokespeople, meanwhile, gloss over this widespread reality and persist in reassuring us that the economy will improve.

Today’s society – more globalized than sovereign in many nation states – is characterized as `post-industrial’ and `knowledge-based,’ in theory to include highly educated professionals. Before I address that illusion, let me point out that `knowledge workers’ are identified as belonging to the “quaternary sector” of economy. That sector, apparently, overlaps with the “tertiary” and (sometimes included, but often not) the “quinary” sector.

But, let us reflect. Canada (and how many other nation states?) continue to be deeply invested in the “primary sector,” which traditionally includes: agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining – most particularly mining these days. That raises another question: How does the onslaught by extractive industries jive with a knowledge-based society? The answer resides in the purpose of all economic sectors – monetary gain. The perennial ethical concern, of course, is gain for whom and at what human and environmental costs?

Read the title on the cover of Maclean’s current edition: “OIL SANDS CRISIS: How we are BLOWING the biggest money-making opportunity in our history.” Inside, the reporter plaintively describes through four pages of woe that “the most valuable resource in our history” is being obstructed from its economic aspirations [to benefit whom precisely?] by “the green lobby” and “dozens of First Nations groups [to which I say, God bless them every one]. Don’t you love the corporate media diminishing the wisdom in these opponents’ shared concerns about elevated greenhouse gas emissions, and more!?

Canada’s national economic identity, by the way, since Confederation in 1867, is the definitive “hewers of wood, drawers of water.” In other words, Canada’s foremost dependence economically always has resided in the extraction of our country’s natural resources. One wag, in the Financial Post not long ago, questioned this continuing reality in an article titled “Hewers of wood, drawers of subsidy.”

The acceleration of these traditional activities in the past half century has resulted in the clear cutting of formerly pristine natural environments and the contamination of major waterways by the dumping of uranium tailings, run-off from agricultural pesticides and fertilizers, and I could go on.

By the way, I speak of Canada, because this is my homeland. I encourage you, however, to translate what I present here about economic sectors – and the next great economic hope residing in a `knowledge-based’ society – and explore how various economic sectors function in your nation. Also, ask yourself what needs to be challenged, and transformed, to truly raise humanity to a higher level of consciousness, to create a society where no one goes hungry and the planet’s life support system is protected, nurtured and restored.

Meanwhile, back at the homestead, I diligently researched a four-sector economic model and what types of workers are included in the knowledge-based economic vision. Doing so offered the framework to structure my argument here about illusion and reality.

Why do so many economists and politicians have their heads in the sand, very specifically, the oil sands, when much has been publicized about the government’s investments in recent years to bring us up-to-speed into the digital age? In other words, is Canada authentically moving its focus forward, from primary economic activities to quaternary and, as well, finally recognizing the often omitted “quinary sector”?

My research indicates that quaternary and quinary sectors are not always described in the same way. First, here are excerpts from the eHow website about the sector model:

“Fisher and Clark [economic theorists] stated that workers in pre-industrialized societies were predominantly involved in the primary sector, particularly in agriculture. As industrialization occurs in a society, employment becomes concentrated in the manufacturing or secondary sector. In a post-industrial society, manufacturing becomes less important, and the service sector or tertiary sector gains prominence.”

Later theorists, such as Paul Hatt and Nelson Foote, included quaternary and quinary sectors to the economic model. These theorists felt the service or tertiary sector was overly large and should be divided up. The quaternary sector refers to intellectual- or information-related positions, so its activities include healthcare, education, government, and information technology. The quinary sector refers to top-level executives in any part of the service sector, including CEOs, high-level government officials, and education and healthcare administrators.”

The above-identified stages of economic development are self-explanatory in regard to why these various economic sectors have value to the corporate and government power holders. The sector evolution, however, brings no comfort to the millions of people who have lost jobs around the world because of the outcomes of these economic transitions. And what does the future hold for the human family, unless we reframe how this above model is unfolding globally?

Agriculture is vitally important, as are entire ecosystems and clean water to provide us with life-giving sustenance. Believe it or not, a locally-based environmental researcher has informed me that where I live – in an agricultural region – food security no longer exists. The reason is, both agribusinesses and also a growing number of destitute smaller farmers now are growing cash crops rather than food for human consumption. What will families everywhere do, given a potentially looming food crisis?

Manufacturing is said above to “become less important” in a post-industrial society. Tell that to the thousands, probably millions, of North American workers who have lost their jobs to the developing world, where workers there too often are financially exploited and grossly mistreated in other ways. Again, in my rural region I continually witness what is playing out across the continent – more and more people in small towns losing retail and manufacturing jobs in stores and companies now closed down.

The tertiary sector (and aspects of the quaternary) basically includes service industries, a reality that began to develop visibly in the 1950s. Since then, the `service sector’ has grown immensely to have a major impact on present-day society, what late sociologist Daniel Bell forecast in his 1973 book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society.

A Wikipedia (Wiki) page describes the “Quaternary sector” as “a knowledge-based part of the economy which typically includes services such as information sharing, information technology, consultation, education, research and development, financial planning, and other knowledge-based services…media, culture and government.”

The eHow website characterizes the “quinary sector” primarily in reference to “top-level executives.” A Wiki page about the Fisher-Clark “Three Sector Hypothesis,” distinguishes the quinary sector as “non-profit,” and on a Wiki “Quinary sector” page includes: health, culture, and research. A 1987 paper prepared for the U.S. Federal Reserve Board identifies in the quinary sector: medical care, education, research, recreation (including the arts).

Again, the theoretical inclusion of these work categories bring no comfort, in Ontario where I live for example, to recently graduated teachers who cannot find jobs, because of major government cutbacks at both the federal and provincial levels to educational institutions. Similar cuts also have happened nationally across the multi-faceted cultural arts sector since 2007/2008.

A further unhappy economic fact is the huge loss of major endowments from the private sector, a loss triggered by the 2008 economic downturn, that has had a serious negative impact on the budgets of universities and colleges across North America and elsewhere.

If higher education holds the key to a knowledge-based society, why are so many post-secondary graduates (of all ages) standing outside a closed door, unemployed?

The above insights bring us full circle to my opening questions: What is a `knowledge-based’ society? What are the types of workers included? And who actually is getting jobs instead of losing them? A summary of the 2008 book Knowledge Workers in the Information Society specifies `knowledge workers’ as: “journalists, broadcasters, librarians, filmmakers and animators, government workers, and employees in the telecommunications and high tech sectors.” The summary adds: “Technological change has become relentless.” No kidding.

Without adeptness in digital tools, employment today is too often beyond reach for many well-educated, experienced professionals – including me – regardless of deep and expansive knowledge, acquired through years of study and practice, in fields pertinent to addressing the social and environmental challenges of our time.

Despite my engagement in ongoing professional development in my own ever-evolving creative professions, and a willingness to be on a continual digital learning curve, the emphasis on a technological skill set that appears on most job requirements far outweighs the value given to knowledge “content.”

Our societal transition, at least in this early “post-industrial” phase, gives much more monetary value to technology and the technology creators of communication “tools” to facilitate production than to the facilitators and producers of knowledge “content” such as educators and creative professionals.

When can we fix that imbalance in regard to whom and what we choose to value?

Again, among`knowledge workers’ it appears that many more are losing jobs than gaining jobs. More recently, for example, an increasing number of government workers also are losing their jobs.

However, even prior to the 2008 economic downturn, many creative professionals no longer could earn a living once the digital world fuelled the misguided assumption of content users that all online information is free. That assumption needs to change.

To sum up, the further major contradiction of a `knowledge-based’ society, that is supposed to include highly educated professionals, in fact is the marginalization, and disregard for the social, intellectual and cultural value of several of these groups of `knowledge workers.’

Can we co-create a more inclusive vision of a knowledge-based society, the vision embraced in celebratory terms such as “the cultural creatives,” “creative class,” and “creative industries”? Such terms were coined by cutting edge (and controversial) thinkers such as American urban studies theorist Richard Florida. He currently is Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and Professor of Business and Creativity at the Rotman School of Management, at the University of Toronto.

In another blog post at a future time, I will address the “cultural creative” angle of a knowledge-based society, from my lifelong insider perspective.

We are a world in transition, after all. If you need a boost to believe in a hopeful future, reflect upon what caring people everywhere are doing towards that pursuit. I invite you, for example, to see my September 2012 post, “Blessed Unrest Heralds an Unnamed Global Movement.”

My next post will offer solace in focusing on the qualities of the human heart that get us through the tough times, crises and traumas, through our life journey in an era of uncertainty. Know always that our innate human creativity is where possibility resides.













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