September 27, 2023
In his recent book, The Constitution of Knowledge, the author Jonathan Rauch argues that knowledge consists of something about which nearly everybody can agree, and which has been arrived at by a structured, ongoing and benign process of debate and discovery.
Without this social architecture, things unravel and sometimes in catastrophic ways. The undermining of knowledge and the processes that lead to it has been one of the defining characteristics of authoritarians for the entirety of human history. They know if you can get people to believe absurdities, you can get them to commit atrocities. Or at least shut up and let you get on with the business of despotism.
Conversely, knowledge is a thing that exists outside of whatever ideology would destroy it. As Winston Smith wrote in his private journal in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
It’s no coincidence that Rauch published his book at the tail end of the Trump presidency, but his core argument applies to all authoritarian thinking.
It is not even necessary to get everybody to believe – or at least say they believe – palpable self-harming nonsense, like the sharks do in Finding Nemo. All you need is a critical mass of people to create what Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann described in 1974 as the spiral of silence, in which people will go along with what they believe is a consensus or if they believe there is a cost to pay for challenging it.
I hadn’t expected people to agree but neither had I expected the abuse
Now Noelle -Neumann and Rauch are addressing major, world-changing issues in their work, but the same dynamics apply to more parochial issues. I recall at the height of workplace hysteria in 2020/21 challenging the idea that ‘the office is dead’ on LinkedIn. At the time this idea was so well laundered in a thousand op-eds like this piece of automatable cookie cutter solipsism, that even I was taken aback by the response.
I hadn’t expected people to agree but neither had I expected the abuse, including one consultant openly pondering if there were ways I could be reported to LinkedIn and removed from the platform. And yes, I do remember his name.
Now, things have calmed down so there is less likelihood of somebody becoming so personally offended by an opinion about an office, they would like to damage somebody’s career. But problems remain. One of them is that many conversations and disagreements arise because people use the same words to describe something but define them differently or use different assumptions about them. This matters for big issues and it matters for issues in the relatively inconsequential workplace parish.
For example, I hold to the idea that nobody knows what hybrid working is, by which I mean there is no universally shared idea about what hybrid working is. In Rauch’s terms, it does not count as knowledge. So conversations about it cannot assume that everybody understands it in the same way.
I suspect this is why there is friction between firms and employees on the issue. Workers may often assume hybrid working means something like flexible working. Bosses often seem to define it as being the days in which they tell people to work in the office. This is perhaps the root cause of the spat between executives and employees at Disney right now.
This kind of conflict will be exacerbated by the great human centipede of ideas and content that is AI. The laundering of bad ideas such as ‘the death of the office’ used to at least require somebody to talk about them or type them out, even when they were just parroting the same rubbish they’d heard already. Now hundreds of millions of AIs will be able to expel and consume each other’s effluent in a matter of seconds, over and over. It will be bots all the way down.
So, we need to relearn some fundamental ideas. We need to hold conversations in good faith, share knowledge, define what we mean and call out those who would undermine not only meanings but the way we arrive at them.
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.