August 20, 2012

Knowledge Ain’t What It Used to Be: Professionals as Guardians of ‘Knowledge-Cool’

“Wow, you know a lot!” When was the last time you heard anyone say that? When was the last time you said it or thought it?

Probably not since the astronomical growth of the Internet and of information storage capacity measured in terabytes.

Now, even the tone of that praise sounds quaint, even archaic, like “Gosh, Mary, I think you’re a swell gal!”, stammered by a shy, ground-pawing Jimmy Stewart-type carrying Mary’s books, or “Wow! You’re a college guy!”, gushed by a wide-eyed high school girl back in the 1950s.

Given finger-tip access to virtually anything we want to know, acquiring knowledge has become delightfully and mind-bogglingly easy—whether it’s discovering the best route to and through Yosemite, the benefits of omega-3 or the latest updates about the “God Particle”—the Higgs boson. As a consequence, everybody can compete within or carve out a personal knowledge niche, while no one can literally become a “know-it-all”.

So knowing “a lot” isn’t as socially cool as it used to be. “Knowledge-cool” (being respected for having lots of knowledge) is now, like getting compliments on your physique or figure when you are 85, both harder to get and (therefore) seemingly less important outside of its main bastion—the professions.

Knights of the Knowers

The only knowledge-triggered “Wow!” to be audibly or silently elicited in this Internet age is likely to be that of one professional dealing with another, such as in the interactions of recruiters with their candidates and clients or NASA Mars-Rover engineers looking over a colleague’s designs. Socially, “Wow! You know a lot!” is as rare as a Valley Girl who actually does.

(Interactions with other recruiters, to the extent that they are social and do not impact the financial bottom line, are less likely to be as decorous and knowledge-focused as the purely professional interactions with candidates and clients. Hence, probably fewer knowledge-based “Wow!”s in these casual, semi-social recruiter contexts.)

Social vs. Professional Knowledge-Cool

The trend is clear: There is a huge and growing difference between “social knowledge-cool” and “professional knowledge-cool”. These days, while the rest of the instant-info Internet-fed world struggles to keep up with or is unimpressed with what other people know, recruiters and the professions they serve play a key role as guardians of the concept and possessors of knowledge-cool.

They have to, because the jobs they fill require it.

This is but one instance of the broad role recruiting and other professions are playing as guardians of multiple core aspects of the general cultural matrix in which they are embedded.  As I have noted elsewhere, while the civility, courtesy and hospitality that once could be taken for granted in daily life and social interaction is challenged and displaced by aggressive, indifferent, rude and definitely uncivil behavior (e.g., jungle-law mayhem at holiday super-sales), traditional standards of decency and decorum still prevail in recruiter-candidate-client  and other professional, commercialized “Gesellschaft” interactions.

What is true of good manners is also true of cool knowledge: it is respected and required in recruiting culture and in the companies and organizations the recruiting industry serves.

A Short History of Knowledge-Cool

Once upon a time, not so long ago, knowledge impressed most people. Knowing more than one—no, even one—Shakespearean sonnet by heart, details of a blue-chip company’s latest annual report; the molecular structure of testosterone; the etiology, treatment and prognosis for type 2 diabetes; the history and mysteries of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, how to build your own computer, Dallas Cowboy game and player stats for the past 25 years, or the secret top-ten recruiting techniques, elicited at least envy, if not interest.

After all, in days of yore, the only way to acquire such knowledge was through often hard-to-find or copy scrolls; expensive books bought or borrowed; specialist subscription-only magazines and journals; frequently expensive higher education or training; or from source specialists, such as English professors, stock brokers, biochemists, physicians, archaeologists, engineers and personnel managers. Above all, knowledge was power—including social power.

When was that? Anytime before the Internet Age.

In the pre-“Googlepedia” era, the twin ideas of being “knowledgeable” and of being admired for it made sense, although achieving knowledgeability took some work, e.g., wading through the 60 volumes of the University of Chicago’s Great Books of the Western World .

Ironically, in 2012 the knowledgeability bar is not only set higher, but is also, when cleared, somehow less impressive, less “cool”. Now, knowledge, like and accessible on an iPhone, is no longer so special, however useful it may be. That is, except among professionals and those who place them, recruiters.

The farther back in time we look, the easier it was to become knowledgeable.  For example, consider the early days of the American colonies. Some, perhaps many, if not most literate colonists in the Puritan Commonwealth of Virginia  probably would have argued that five or six books should suffice: The Holy Bible, Euclid’s Elements, Plutarch’s Lives, Newton’s Principia, Plato’s Republic and anything by Aristotle or Shakespeare, plus the requisite Latin and Greek primers. For overkill, toss in a few of the Latin and Greek poets, some ecclesiastical works and maybe some Rousseau and Locke.

Going back to the dawn of man, at the earliest point in our primeval past, merely knowing that rocks are inedible merited the title “savant”.

More recently, through its incredible narrowness, this 1869 Harvard University entrance exam should serve to amply make the point about how it’s all changed, comprising as it did only Latin and Greek grammar, some history and geography (e.g., “What is the source of the Danube?”) and various math questions. True, it was an exam for high school seniors, but fast-forward to today and try to imagine impressing Harvard admissions in 2011, with (only) that kind of knowledge as your base.

Harvard aside, anything you know, no matter how specialized or complex, is unlikely to socially impress everybody and maybe not anybody, even if there is nary a neuron devoted to your subject in the brain of those subjected to your otherwise dazzling display of knowledge. Why is that? Why the ho-hum response to your grasp of Hume, glazed eyes when you explain the intricacies of Renaissance Florentine glazing techniques or yawns when you explain how your new resume sorting software works? The easy answer—“boring”—is not the most relevant to understanding the modern decline of social awe.

Is it merely that what counts as “cool” knowledge has changed? Is it a shift of the mind’s gaze from Francis Bacon’s “Four Idols” to American Idols’ idols that makes “hard” (recondite) knowledge uncool?

No, irrespective of whether what you know is fascinating or not and without regard for how arcane it is, the sad fact is that what you know or anyone else knows in this Net age will, at least and especially socially, impress very, very few people—with the important exception of those within fields like recruiting or NASA engineering, in which one’s knowledge base can make or break one’s career and its associated chances.

Sure, if you’re an impressionable 14-year-old, you may be dazzled by knowledge of the lyrics of every Justin Bieber song (but then maybe not, since you can grab them from the Net in and on a flash(-drive). And if you are a gun collector, with a specialist interest in the Civil War, you may be spellbound by another’s detailed grasp of Confederate artillery pieces (until you Google-grab it yourself).

But broad and deep Renaissance (Wo)Man knowledgeability? Neither of interest nor possible anymore, in most social contexts.

How Did Knowledgeability Become Socially Uncool?

The importance of knowledgeability in the realm of job applicants, recruiters, clients and other highly professional and specialized contexts notwithstanding, what anybody else knows is not socially cool anymore for the following reasons:

  • Ease of access and self-instruction:  A good friend’s eight-year-old daughter, using her laptop, prepared and showed her dad a complete and correct medical report—diagnosis plus grim prognosis—about her terminally ill hamster. Over dinner at her family’s, she asked me, “Do you have any good ideas for a research project?” Get the point? Knowledge is easily accessed and gained, anytime by anyone—even an (extremely intelligent) eight-year old with a computer. Nothing special (apart from her).
  • Marginalization of knowledge: This phrase, “marginalization of knowledge”, is mine and encapsulates two ideas. The first is that the more one knows today, the more likely it is at the margin—frequently the “cutting-edge”, if you will—of the rapidly growing corpus of knowledge in which it which it is embedded.

This will be especially true in cultures like ours in which the “latest” and “newest” ideas are the ones most likely to be published, broadcast or otherwise encountered and disseminated as “memes” (what Richard Dawkins called the pure information analogues of genes).

Moreover, it is well known that any sub-field of any science is growing faster, in terms of the bits and bytes of knowledge it comprises, than the human capacity to master the total (or even merely the annual growth itself).

Hence the second, less inspiring idea: the “marginal utility” of knowledge, even knowledge at the cutting-edge margin, is decreasing, at least as a percentage of the total bulk of which it is a part and to which it contributes as that part and as a catalyst for even more knowledge.

Each increment added to the pile of knowledge is, or at least seems to be, like another dollar added to Bill Gates’ wealth: not nearly as impressive to the possessor or anyone else as many of the much earlier ones (even though, as an investment, it may, in fact, ultimately generate many, many more).

Hence, what you or anyone else knows is just another pebble on an ever-enlarging beach.

Compare adding one fact, theorem or proposition to the science of computer science sixty years ago with adding one now—allowing that this very concept of addition is crude in its purely quantitative formulation. The average new fact is no big deal for the average person.

Irrespective of the fruitfulness and scope of any single bit of knowledge you may display on a given occasion, the temptation on the part of others to imagine it is but a piddling piece of an exponentially, ever-expanding already enormous and unwieldy pie of knowledge is going to be irresistible. This temptation will be overwhelming, given the expanding reality of the “knowledge explosion.

  • Twilight of embarrassment:  In the pre-Web era, it would have been predictably embarrassing to not know what most intelligent people were expected to know. You don’t know what “NATO” is? Never heard of Dr. Jonas Salk? That was then; this is now.

Now, no matter how commonplace or exotic the knowledge that you lack, you can cover up your ignorance by citing something else that you do know, preferably something esoteric that you found on the Internet, e.g., that the current credit default swap mess the world is in—to the tune of $600 trillion (if all derivatives are included)—can apparently be traced back to one clever woman at J.P. Morgan Chase.

Given the amount of time we spend surfing the Net and the pervasiveness of “higher education”, everybody knows something that most people don’t, even if it’s baseball trivia, Hollywood gossip, or veterinary care for sick Peruvian guinea pigs.

Access to alternate niche knowledge bases is the flip side of the information and knowledge explosion coin.  The ability to find highly specialized information on demand offsets being swamped by terabytes of information too voluminous for human comprehension, now or ever.

The niche spares us embarrassment because we can tactically and effectively display whatever we’ve chosen to know, and thereby save face by demonstrating our niche-knowledgeability; the explosion spares us similar embarrassment, because we can plead that there is simply too much to know and that it is unreasonable to expect each of us to know what others know.

Good point, good excuse.

So, the incredible amount of stuff you and everyone else knows is not cool, because I have my own cool knowledge niche and, besides, there’s too much stuff to know.

  • Diffusion and homogenization of knowledge: These days the only thing that diffuses faster than knowledge is advertising and news (yes, that was a dig at both). Cite any political scandal, health alert, a weird YouTube video of a walking octopus or almost anything else that you have learned in the past three days and you will find that the person you are relating it to already knows it.

This impales all of us on the horns of an information dilemma—actually a trilemma: Either what you know is basically of no interest to those you are informing and therefore fails to impress them; or it is of interest and so they already know it; or because they know something else that is equally “impressive” to match your revelation, they are not overshadowed or impressed (as much as they would have been in the pre-Net era).

You fail to impress, period—unless you luckily know something of interest to them before they do (increasingly a long shot, these days). Even then, your knowledgeability is still likely to be shrugged off or unacknowledged.

The Guardians of Knowledge-Cool

However, you can impress and be impressed by knowledgeability, if you are in a profession like recruiting or at NASA, where possession of knowledge or lack thereof is often the deciding factor in whether you indeed impress, are impressed or survive.

Don’t know C++? No facility with Adobe Photoshop? No mastery of statistical software? Bye. You know how to design resume prioritizing software? “Wow!”—an affirmation of your cool knowledgeabilty or lack thereof.

This “professionalization of knowledge-cool”—it’s commercialization—is the vanguard or rear guard of any chance to preserve the very concept of being knowledgeable, as it increasingly recedes from social consciousness, social interactions and our personal grasp.

It is important to note that the conviction that knowledgeability exists and that knowledge-cool is still “in” and important, that it counts and can be achieved and demonstrated—a  belief once commonplace in social interactions, is now more likely to be found only among professionals like yourself whose job is to find those who possess it.

But then, being and having knowledge-cool, you probably already knew that.


Image: Marlbork Castle, Poland/Photo: Michael Moffa


Read more in Job Trends

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).