Excerpt | The Predicament of Knowledge: A Challenge for Culture Design


by Joe Brewer, coming in Kosmos Journal, Fall | Winter 2016

Imagine if we collectively knew all that is needed to solve the hardest social problems in the world. Whether it’s political corruption or mass poverty, ecological devastation or terrorism, the refugee crisis or structural racism, the root causes for all of these issues are deeply and systemically cultural.

So what if we already knew how to design changes in culture and solve problems like these? Wouldn’t that be a worthwhile thing to do? Read on and I will try to convince you that this seemingly impossible feat is already within reach—all we have to do is put the right pieces together.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much truly excellent knowledge there is in the world. Just last week, I was deep in conversation with a woman I work with about the science of cognitive linguistics and how much is known about human thought and behavior after half a century of advances in the cognitive and behavioral sciences.

We delved into the foundational research on human categories from the late 1970’s;1 how metaphors arise from neural mapping of concrete body movements to the abstract domain of conceptual thought formalized in the early 80’s;2 and the exploration of social scripts as windows into the mental structuring of social experience during this same period of time.3 A quiet revolution was simmering in the social sciences that clearly explained how the human mind constructs and interprets reality in social settings. Yet to this day, much of it is overlooked or ignored.

Here’s the kicker… all of this knowledge is 30 to 40 years old!

Why is it that people getting trained for media and communications today are not learning about frame semantics, conceptual metaphors, body-based reasoning, and all the other foundational insights from linguistics from a generation ago? A similar question could be asked about academics that rarely venture into other fields to learn what is happening in them—estimates are as high as 90% of all peer-reviewed work never gets cited.4 It’s partly to do with a special kind of blindness that dominates the world today — the over-emphasis of the new as somehow ‘better’ than what came before.

We have learned to treat scientific knowledge in the same throwaway manner that we do for older versions of laptops and smartphones. Mention a book from 15 years ago and watch as eyes glaze over. How could that possibly be relevant today? The amazing truth is that there has been a veritable explosion of knowledge accompanying the exponential explosion in human population (and all the emergent social complexities that came with it).

Here is a little known fact that should blow your mind: 90% of all scientists who have ever lived are alive today.5 That’s right! We create more knowledge in a year than was produced in the first 300 years after the scientific revolution. This expansion can be seen in the number of peer-review journal articles, millions of people graduating from college and advance studies (see Figure 1) every year and entering the workforce (if they are lucky enough to find increasingly rare employment opportunities), and the massive flood of findings across every field imaginable with new sources of data and tools for its study.

Our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough knowledge; it’s that we have too much of it coming too fast for us to process and internalize. We are growing the pool of knowledge and insights at an exponential rate, yet failing to synthesize or apply it rapidly enough to tackle major social problems.

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