Monday, August 01, 2011

Some thoughts about classes of knowledge

One of the definitions of technology is the organized body of knowledge underlying the ways we make things and do practical, productive things. Whether or not you like that definition, I want to think about that body of useful knowledge.

There is also a body of fundamental knowledge about nature, man and society, prototypically scientific knowledge. We normally think of pure science as not useful, not technological. However, I would suggest that the two bodies of knowledge are not mutually exclusive. For example, human anatomy is both fundamental knowledge and, when in the hands of a surgeon, knowledge applied in making effective medical interventions. Human anatomy, although applied by artists and sculptors to make their products more lifelike, could not be applied widely and effectively for surgery until there were developments of anesthesia and antisepsis.

I think this situation in which knowledge exists which can not be applied applied without the development of complementary knowledge may be fairly common. Think for example of the development of electricity, where people had to discover how to generate electricity relatively efficiently from mechanical energy produced by steam engines, how to transmit it relatively efficiently, and how to transform electrical energy into something really useful (electric light) before commercial electrical systems became feasible. So too, they had to learn how to transform electrical energy efficiently back into mechanical energy before it could be applied to locomotion (trolleys, electric locomotives) or to power machines (made possible by knowledge accumulated in the industrial revolution).

Incidentally, there are many situations where technological knowledge exists and is used without much understanding of the fundamental phenomena that underlie its utility. Acupuncture works, but with due apologies to its practitioners, I doubt that we understand why. Great swords were made for centuries, by sword makers who understood very little metallurgy. Gothic cathedrals were built in the middle ages by masons who had very little understanding of the physics of mechanical forces.

There is considerable interest now in translational knowledge, that which must exist or be developed before fundamental knowledge can be applied in the form of practical technological knowledge. We know that stem cells have the potential to be used therapeutically in applications such as spinal cord repair, but we don’t have the knowledge of how to actually to do that. I suppose that, in the campaign to eradicate smallpox, while the vaccine was available for a long time, translational knowledge had to be developed as how to apply the vaccine efficiently, how to deliver it in usable form in the difficult conditions of poor tropical countries, and especially how to run an eradication campaign effectively in difficult conditions.

Potentially useful knowledge that can not be used, may well be lost. Think of Mendel’s knowledge of genetics that could not be used well until the evolutionary synthesis, which lay buried in old journals until it was rediscovered many decades later. Think of the knowledge that Babbage and Lady Lovelace created that was buried until the development of electronic computers made it viable for productive purposes. Penicillin was discovered decades before Fleming rediscovered it, but could not be utilized until experts in commercial fermentation discovered a commercially feasible way to produce the antibiotic.

Sometimes the limitations on the utility of potentially practical knowledge are social and/economic. World War II provided the conditions that made it necessary and possible to develop penicillin, radar, computers and other technological knowledge. Gutenberg found conditions suitable for the development and dissemination of printing technology; earlier printing was developed for the production of amulets containing verses from the Koran, but the conditions for the further development and dissemination of the technology did not exist and the knowledge was lost.
Source: Martin Roell

We know that there is an important difference between technological innovation and technological invention. The first is economically important, and usually the result of first utilization of an existing technology in a new situation; technological innovation involves more fundamental novelty such as that needed to justify a patent granting monopolistic use of the knowledge. The point I would make is that the productive application of existing knowledge in a new situation in a developing nation may be limited not only by the lack of a supporting social and/or economic matrix, but also be the lack of the requisite complementary knowledge in the community of interest. Indeed, once useful knowledge that existed in the past in now rich countries, that has been lost, might still be used productively in poor countries were the propitious social and economic conditions now exist.

The development of the appropriate knowledge systems, and the dissemination of the appropriate complementary and fundamental knowledge for the application of innovative technological knowledge in poor nations may be more difficult and more important than is generally recognized in the development community.

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