Monday, August 20, 2007

Knowing and the Problem of Scale

Some years ago, while discussing with a mutual friend her decision to redirect her professional life and go to law school in her forties, someone I know made a very interesting observation about the law. He pointed out that law as it exists in the modern world constitutes a regime of boundaries to legally sanctioned behaviour that we (meaning ordinary people) are simply incapable of knowing in their entirety because of the sheer amount of state-based textual regulation of our behaviour and because of the extensive specialist knowledge required to truly know what those texts mean. At the same time, we are all expected to obey these rules, always and without exception -- as the old piece of lay wisdom tells us, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse." Being expected upon threat of some sort of punishment to obey what we cannot possibly understand in full is, by definition, oppressive. Therefore, the law as it exists, even before you consider anything else about the details of particular legislation or the uneven ways that laws get activated by individual and collective agents of state authority or the ways that ostensibly neutral laws play out in the context of the existing hierarchical social relations, is inherently oppressive.

There is something I find not entirely satisfying about this characterization of the law, and I haven't been able to figure out what, but that is not why I raise it here -- it is still a worthwhile point, I think. I mention it because it is a useful illustration of one important set of implications of what I've come to think about as "the problem of scale." That is, the world is really, really big, and one human life is, compared to that, really, really tiny, and we can only begin our decision-making about acting in the context of the social from our own space for agency as individuals. In other words, we must navigate and attempt to influence the immense based, at least at the first level of analysis, upon the miniscule.

In this example, we bump up against the limits that the problem of scale places on our ability to know. This limit has significance far beyond the initial example. Each and every one of us has only twenty-four hours in each day. Within those twenty-four hours, we have limits on our energy and we have all sorts of tasks that we must engage in other than building knowledge about the world as it exists outside of our own local everyday context. And yet, somehow, because our actions inevitably have impacts far beyond our local everyday context, we have an obligation to build adequate knowledge so that we can direct those actions in ethically and politically responsible ways.

Variations in Our Knowing

Let's first consider what variation exists among people in terms of knowing about the world beyond our local everyday experience.

Different people have different capacities to process the kinds of information that are required for building this kind of knowledge, a difference that may appear at the surface to be "inherent" or "natural" but almost certainly isn't in any simplistic understanding of those words. I would argue the difference is largely socially constructed by the ways in which our social organization assumes that these tasks must be done in terms of how information is produced and transmitted and so on. Still, wherever it comes from, and for all that it does not give anyone a greater or lesser right to dignity and respect and autonomy and all of that, there is some modest variation here.

Different people are tied to the need to engage in other life tasks to differing degrees, often in ways that have to do with power and privilege -- the lower down you get slotted in social hierarchies, the less of your time is actually yours to determine. And building knowledge takes time. Of course, positing a simple correlation between privilege and extra-local knowledge of the world would itself be an oppressive assumption. Someone who experiences significant oppression may have less time and energy to develop such knowledge but they also may or may not understand themselves to have significantly more incentive to do so, so as to refine and expand the knowledge that their own experience of everyday oppression has already given them access to and thereby enhance their individual ability to navigate the world and their efforts to change it. In contrast, however time-intensive a generic well-to-do white guy's professional job might be, most of the other tasks besides that may be taken care of by the (most often white) woman he married and the various (often racialized) working-class people employed in the service sector who can be mobilized via market mechanisms to meet his needs in a way that makes minimal demands on his time. Yet there is no particular compulsion for him to use that time to work at building extra-local knowledge of the world because, as far as his life goes, the world is just fine. He might as well spend all of that "extra" time playing video games or collecting stamps or watching televised sports or discussing snooty films over expensive wine with other time-rich people who would also misunderstand this activity as "understanding the world" in a meaningful sense. Not that discretionary time spent purely for pleasure is intrinsically a bad thing -- it is something that we all need and more of it for everybody is a feature of the different world that I hope we can create. The point is, however, that just because you have lots of time that is relatively free from the compulsion of necessity doesn't mean you use that time to build knowledge of the world. So having time to build knowledge about the world varies with privilege, but how that opportunity gets used can vary a lot as well, and based on other factors than just its availability.

Different people also have differential access to resources to build extra-local knowledge of the world. Again, this works in complicated ways. Access to dominant media resources are close to universal in North America, for whatever that is worth. Access to the internet varies a lot with class privilege, and the internet can provide access to more diverse sources. Specific institutional roles can provide a person with access to particular kinds of sources produced by or for that institution and not otherwise widely available. Access to books, including non-mainstream ones, is also fairly widely dispersed thanks to public libraries. Access to knowledge that is transmitted orally between individual people or in more collective contexts might seem to be quite equally distributed, but I'm not sure that's true. Certainly the sharing of useful information with people who are in one sense or another peers happens everywhere and all the time, and provides for an informal way of sharing valuable information about how to navigate the contexts which the peers might have in common, but that is mostly about local rather than extra-local knowledge. In terms of oral sharing of knowledge about extra-local circumstances, that probably happens in the most interesting ways in the context of some communities forced into long-term struggles for survival, while in more privileged spaces the oral sharing of that nature is more likely to be a parroting of the dominant media knowledge, and so not really an independent resource.

So there is variation among people. But even so, none of that socially-produced individual variation is more than a flicker when seen in the context of the massive scale of the world as a whole.

The Process of Knowing

The way I see it, we come to know more about circumstances beyond the local context which inescapably bounds our direct experience through a process of dynamic encounters between the current state of our knowledge and the various mediated resources which are available to us. The reason why we can function at all given the immensity of the problem of scale as it relates to knowing about the world is that what results from this process of dynamic encounters is not flat, not a catalogue-like accumulation similar to storing bits in a computer's memory. Rather, it is self-reflexive -- the process of coming-to-know is not just modifying some passive databank, but it is also modifying itself. Building knowledge is not just passively taking in "facts" but rather an ongoing, active process of learning how to learn, learning how to build knowledge. This includes forever refining our capacity to deal with ignorance, with gaps in our knowledge, with uncertainty. It includes building our understanding of the sources from which we get extra-local knowledge, because very often we do not have direct experience to compare those sources to. It includes constantly growing and evolving frameworks into which we organize our knowledge, to give them/get from it meaning. And I don't want it to sound like a purely individual process, either. It's not like we take in some external input and then become the sole authors of our own knowledge. Every step of this dynamic process is a negotiation between our own agency and what we inherit from the social, from the meanings of words to the shapes of discourses to the ways in which our own meaning-creating agency has been trained by the particular circumstances of our existence.

One moment in the creation of knowledge and meaning is, therefore, this process of ongoing encounter in which an active agent engages with sources to build and refine the knowledge that will be the basis for her own future functioning.

Those sources have to come from somewhere, however, and that's another part of the ongoing process of knowledge creation. I'm nor sure I care to take the time to try and think through in this post (which has turned much more philosophical and think-heavy than I was expecting when I started writing it) all of the complicated ways in which that must happen. It must involve dynamic interplay among the ever-evolving processes of knowing of the active agent(s) who created the specific resource, material expressions of social relations in terms of organizations and institutions that are the context in which the resources are created, and more discourse-based manifestations of social relations. By building our own knowledge about how this process of source creation works in different contexts and for different sources, we enhance our ability to build useful and accurate knowledge from them. Often the ongoing credibility of sources that consistently propagate ideological understandings of the world consistent with elite needs (or, to use different language, whose standpoints consistently come from within ruling regimes) depend on significant proportions of the population continuing to accept incomplete, ideological, or just plain inaccurate understandings of how those sources come to be. The dominant media are a prime example of this.

So let me try and ground this back someplace close to where we started. Basic facts of physics limit our ability to know about the world. Though there is variation of various sorts among human beings in terms of the basic elements necessary for this knowledge building process, all of us face certain absolute limits grounded in the very fact of our humanness. We can function despite this because we tend to develop quite sophisticated ways of building our own knowledge, though most of us are not really very conscious of exactly how complicated this process is as we are doing it.


Complicated, of course, does not necessarily mean accurate. Generally speaking, we have two mechanisms by which the accuracy of what results from our processes of knowledge creation can be determined. The first is by far the most likely to prod us to change in instances of inaccuracy: whether or not the knowledge thus created guides our actions successfully. However, because what we're talking about in this post is knowledge from beyond our own inevitably local experiential context, we actually have far fewer opportunities to bump into the directly corrective hand of circumstance than you might think when it comes to this sort of knowledge. It is quite possible, therefore, for the owner of a mid-sized hammer factory in Virginia and John Birch Society member to reach the conclusion that everything in Iraq is actually going pretty well and it's just the media that are making it look bad, and to never actually face any consequences of the dreadful inaccuracy of that conclusion. This is, in fact, one way to look at one way power and privilege operate: inaccuracies or distortions in my knowledge of the world have no consequences for me but contribute to your suffering, and your knowledge is completely irrelevant to my wellbeing.

The other mechanism for encouraging accuracy, which can actually help deal with that very problem, is about taking a stance that is deliberately critical and self-critical, and that prioritizes listening and dialogical or intersubjective engagement rather than monological or subject-object engagement. Though inevitably imperfect in its realization, and really just one strand of the same process of engaging with mediated knowledge from outside one's own local context, the openness and critical flexibility it can help create can be a crucial antidote to the traps of ideological mystification, self-serving circular certainty, and just plain dumb blindness to what's really out there.

Making Decisions in the World

All of which leads me to one of the other thoughts that was in my brain when I originally decided to write this post: Take a moment and think about the eminently average individuals who (at least officially) Make Important Decisions in this world. Think about people with names like Harper and Chretien and Bush. Think about them not as abstracted roles but as real people -- people who want to see their neices and nephews next weekend, and get sore feet after too many hours without sitting, and like chocolate eclairs but really shouldn't, and relax by watching trashy movies now and then, and who don't have a magical upload link implanted at the base of their skulls but who need to learn about the world just like any of the rest of us. They are in no way exceptionally bright people, nor exceptionally well educated. I doubt there is much that is very special about their own personal knowledge building processes, and I would suspect the fact that they have reached high political office means that their accuracy-correction processes are optimized to respond in a very specific manner to things which will affect their political careers, which is hardly a recommendation. Most of all, they have only 24 hours in a day, a need to sleep, and lots of other commitments, even if seeing to the mundane necessities of everyday life is not usually among them. They are, in other words, ordinary human beings whose specific circumstances may differ a bit from yours or mine, but who operate in the same general range of possibility. Whatever advantages they have are about having a bit more time and having access to the dedicated knowledge-production organizations of the state (which are not responsive to what I would see as the vital elements for accurate, liberatory knowledge production but which feed heads of government what they need to adequately play their role).

We get trained in our society to see status or power or authority as being somehow synonymous with individual merit, but if you sit back and contemplate not only the extreme ordinariness of the individuals who usually fill these roles but also all of what I wrote above about how we know about the world, it becomes clear that noone has enough merit to do these things. It simply is not possible for any individual to have adequate knowledge of the world to claim to be making these decisions in the sense that we claim we decide what to have for lunch or what colour of sweater to wear today. It becomes very clear that the knowledge building schemes of such people are likely to have marginal, or at least highly mediated, relation to the sorts of concerns that really should be informing the fate of the world. They can't know directly and their inputs are highly, highly mediated, so it depends to a large extent on their existing preconceptions -- highly vetted for elite acceptability by the electoral process -- and on exactly how those input sources are created. The decisions made by these supposed decision-makers are only fractionally about the people who make them, and much more about the social organization in which they are embedded -- they can't know that much about the world except via the highly organized social knowledge production mechanisms that inevitably support a prime minister or a president, and by definition those knowledge production mechanisms are integrated into ruling relations as a whole.

Though the conclusion is hardly a very original one on the left, this is a different path to get to the idea that getting distracted by the individual or the party is very dangerous when the underlying institutions are so central to shaping what happens. But there's more than that, I think.

Though I do find something a bit scary about really letting myself think about the circumstances under which decisions that impose reality on the rest of us get made, there is something heartening about it too. After all, one of the excuses that sometimes gets trotted out when we troublemakers are pushing for change is that ordinary people can't be directly involved in decisions that shape our lives and the world because we just don't know enough to make good decisions. Even apart from all the other ways that line of reasoning can be attacked, I think the ramblings in this post show that it is nonsense because no human beings have the access to social truth that this line implies is possible for a select few. The extent to which that select few is capable has to do with social organization that supports their knowledge building, not with superhuman capacity. Given the tools that human consciousness has developed to deal with this problem of scale, we could certainly reorganize things to address whatever grains of substance might be at the heart of this elitist lie and better support the knowledge building that all of us do. We need a more equitable distribution of discretionary time and we need to reorganize our social production of knowledge to make it more responsive to the standpoints of and accessible by ordinary people. These are huge tasks, of course, and I don't want to downplay that, but the point is that they are tasks that can be accomplished by changing how human beings and the social relations among us are organized, not a reflection of some necessary, inevitable flaw which only an elite, deserving few can escape by dint of their magnificent specialness.

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