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April 13th, 2019
Knowledge is Power, goes the old maxim.
This is universally agreed upon, but are the mechanics of such a phrase universally understood?
The word ‘is’ in this short phrase functions like an equal sign, and like balancing both sides of a mathematical equation, we can say that Power increases as Knowledge increases. Or at least, this is the sentiment that we commonly derive from the old maxim. It’s parroted to kids who are learning to read, it’s broadcasted by universities through esoteric Latin phrases. But what exactly are the mechanics of such a phrase? Is the most powerful person the one who has simply read the most? Or does this superficial idea of knowledge gloss over an important aspect of what knowledge is, how it moves, and how it transforms?
Dipping into physics for a moment, Power is neatly defined as Work over Time, or rather, how much work is done in a given interval of time. If a lot of work can be accomplished in less time, then such a system can be described as powerful, or at least more powerful than a system that accomplishes less work in the same interval of time.
Here physics gives us the gift of a definition that is easy to comprehend and conveniently stripped of any mythical psychobabble that may be attached to the word ‘power’ in the cultural mind and imagination.
We can revisit the original maxim with this unpacked comprehension of power and ask a question: is it legitimate knowledge if power is not increasing?
The ramifications of this question are potentially controversial. It poses the possibility that a single piece of knowledge can exist in two states: one imaginary state, and another state that is functional in reality.
An easy example of this is to ask: does the average smoker know that smoking is bad for their health?
It’s safe to assume that all chronic smokers in the modern world have been thoroughly informed of the hazards of smoking, if not by the people in their life, then by the packaging which they help fund. And yet this knowledge has no functional impact on their behavior. The knowledge in this case exists in a state that is more imaginary.
We can likewise illuminate this difference by bringing to mind the instances of deaf people who gain the ability to hear through different technological implants. Such individuals surely have a knowledge of sound and how it functions for people who can hear, but to then actually experience the sound of human voice for the first time is to translate this knowledge from an imagined form into a functional form.
As is also often said: It’s one thing to know, it’s quite another to understand.
This new word, understand, presents quite a literal function in this framework. Knowledge as a word is really a hazy concept, something that cannot really be pointed at. It does not necessarily exist in the space we inhabit. Whereas understanding evokes a perspective. The word quite literally describes a perspective in space. As we understand, we are described as standing under something. That knowledge now might be described as existing in the real world as something that we can stand in relation to. The only reliable way to translate an imagined piece of knowledge into a functional piece of knowledge is to understand it through experience, and this requires taking action based on that knowledge which only exists as a hazy concept beforehand.
It is for this reason that the best teacher is said to be experience, it cuts out the perseverating obsession that can pool around imagined knowledge and gets straight to the goods, or rather, it cuts straight to functional knowledge which we can viscerally understand.
These mechanics all thread through an equal sign with Power on the other side. However, a sneaky caveat exists within that equal sign, namely: action.
If the old maxim were to be more accurately phrased, we might say that knowledge can lead to power if only we act upon that knowledge. Of course this sounds far inferior to the pithy maxim we are all familiar with.
If there is a hack to gaining power, it is to simplify the process as much as possible: this is how infants do it. Infants do not read books about how to crawl or speak, birds do not study aerodynamics and whales do not have swimming lessons. These obvious images are brought to mind here to highlight an often forgotten process that is inherent in experience that we often forget with knowledge we study: if a piece of knowledge can be acted upon, then it should be tested for functional use, and if it fails to provide any functional use in line with our larger aims in life than there is little reason to give it much attention.
Power inevitably extends our own personal agency. The founder and owner of a successful business literally extends their own personal agency via outsourcing the actions they would personally take but cannot due to the limits everyone has regarding what they can actually do as a single human being operating in a single body. Business and governments distribute the work of larger designs to many people. The key word here is work. For example we can imagine Jeff Bezos hand-delivering every Amazon package that has been delivered, like some sort of Santa Claus, but this would inevitably take the guy decades, if not hundreds of years to accomplish personally. Instead, the vision of Amazon was outsourced and that gargantuan amount of work was accomplished in far less time. Here we return to our definition of power from physics as work over time.
However, we need not extrapolate power so far as to include outsourcing our designs to other people to achieve more work. This whole framework seeks to address a far more personal perspective which is illuminated by a single question:
Am I doing things the hard way?
The sentiment of this question, if unpacked with this framework of power here outlined would sharpen into a new question: is there some piece of knowledge that I am not acting upon that would make things easier and hasten the progress of my goals? The flipside of this question is: am I acting on pieces of knowledge that actually aren’t all that useful?
Emotional attachment to certain ideas inevitably hinders our abilities – quite literally – more than anything else. If access to knowledge were the real problem, then people would generally be much happier and lead far more effective and fulfilling lives, but Google has already solved this problem for the most part, which begs the question once more: if access to knowledge isn’t the problem, than what is?
The answer is that caveat buried within the phrase Knowledge is Power: It’s action.
We need only act upon our ideas to see how good they are,
and in the process we forge our experience,
gain the power
to live a better life.