On Fast Knowledge, “Slow Professors”, and Talented Youth (Part I)
30.04.2017

- Professor Galazhinskiy, at present, all recognized global and Russian forums somehow touch on the issues of rapid changes of the environment. Obviously, a country having a high ranking position depends on its economy and its financial system and their abilities to transfer new technologies into production. A university’s ranking depends on its ability to carry out new education programmes and research and publication projects. In order to be successful and in-demand, a professional is expected to have the ability to re-learn and to adapt to a constantly changing environment. Today, the worst thing for a country, a university, or a specialist is to be a downshifter or an outsider in a race for new knowledge and new technologies. New technologies make knowledge change so fast that the expression “to have current knowledge” is losing its original meaning. How do you think universities should respond to these challenges?

- We are lucky to live in times of rapid changes. Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, a systems theorist, and an inventor, created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”. According to the Curve, until 1900, knowledge doubled every 100 years. After WWII, it started doubling every 25 years. Today, despite differences in development in various spheres of knowledge, it doubles every 13 months. Researchers from the IBM corporation argue that the fast development of the Internet of things will make it double twice a day in the near future. I have no doubt that such a severe reality and even more severe prospects force universities to develop and carry out new education and research and scientific strategies that take into account not only apparent trends but very profound factors as well. If we orient ourselves only toward the most current trends, we may lose in the future.

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- Maybe it is time to give up then. There is not a single human brain or even a huge corporation such as a university that is capable of digesting such a huge amount of knowledge that doubles so fast, and having digested it, can generate more new knowledge. 

- It is not time to give up yet. Firstly, when we talk about an exponential growth of knowledge, we do not talk only about scientific knowledge. Most of it is represented by so-called everyday knowledge. Secondly, when we talk about growth of scientific knowledge, we must realize that there are different levels of it. In other words, new string theories or quantum field theories cannot appear every 12 hours, no matter how fast the Internet of things develops. The higher a level of scientific knowledge is, the more fundamental it is, the more slowly it doubles.  Any revolutionary changes happen even less often. The same is true for philosophical knowledge. However, the situation is different when it concerns applied knowledge, which, with the help of new technologies, can develop really fast and, in turn, create more new technologies.

- Is it possible to say that applied scientific knowledge is “fast” knowledge and fundamental scientific and philosophical knowledge is “slow” knowledge?

- I believe, yes. Even though there are other ways to interpret the terms “fast knowledge” and “slow knowledge”.  David Orr, an American writer and environmentalist, coined them in his 1996 essay. He explained that the culture of fast knowledge contemplates that only what can be measured is true scientific knowledge. There is no difference between information and knowledge. The more information we get, the better. True knowledge is not limited by any specifics of the environment in which it is applied. It is free of responsibility for the consequences of its application. Applied knowledge is always “better” than abstract knowledge because it can be put into use. Wisdom is not important because it cannot be measured. Human ability to evaluate the growing amount of information can become unlimited because of constantly developing technologies. Therefore, fast knowledge literally refers to knowledge that is received and learned (digested) immediately.

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The culture of slow knowledge refers to something opposite. Knowledge and information here are not the same. The speed of learning knowledge and the speed of gaining wisdom are negatively related. Irresponsible application of knowledge leads to destroying the conditions in which any knowledge can be generated. The real problem is that we have too much extra knowledge and information, which we cannot digest. It is wisdom that education should focus on, not intellect. Slow knowledge itself focuses on harmony, stability, and preserving true values that make life esthetically, spiritually, and socially fulfilling. The only knowledge that people can continuously rely on is slowly obtained knowledge that relates to a particular ecological and socio-cultural context.

- Does it mean that slow knowledge is preferable?

- No, it does not. David Orr does not insist on an exclusive role for slow knowledge. There are times for fast knowledge as well. What he does insist on though is the idea that we generate knowledge so fast today that it distracts us from smart and careful application of it and even from properly digesting it. Obviously, fast knowledge is responsible for the progress we have witnessed recently. As a result, many short-term problems have been solved. However, it has led to some unexpected consequences, such as social and digital inequality, pollution, climate change, increased cancer incidence, and many other issues. We still have no idea what the real risks of development of artificial intelligence, nuclear power, or nanotechnologies are. Because of that, the concept of slow knowledge appears to be more relevant today than it has ever been before.  

By the way, Orr’s idea is well compatible with the concept of fast and slow thinking presented  by Daniel Kahneman, a Noble Prize laureate, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. In order to make the right decisions, a person is supposed to have both types of thinking and they are supposed to be well balanced.  That is exactly what we need today. The right balance between fast and slow knowledge.

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- Nevertheless, today we have a huge increase in demand for fast knowledge all over the world. It is pivotal for competiveness when it concerns technologies and huge IT and financial corporations. Universities compete on the global education market, proposing diverse sets of fast knowledge, represented in their education programmes. That is why the society has started believing that learning slowly and majoring in something that is not connected with applied knowledge means turning into an outsider or a downshifter. Why is it happening?

- Unfortunately, people have a common stereotype that it is necessary to gain fast knowledge.  This stereotype exists on all social levels and among people of all generations. They think it is important to gain fast knowledge fast! Many of them find the direct correlation between applied knowledge and technologies, but they do not see the same correlation between applied and fundamental knowledge. That is why the latter becomes “obsolete”.

We may find some other aspects that caused the situation we are in today. The article “The university in the epoch of digital reason: Fast knowledge in the circuits of cybernetic capitalism” by Michael Peters, a New Zealand  researcher,  is worth paying attention to. Just like the Frankfurt School philosophers, he believes that in the 20th century, speed became more than just a parameter to measure changes of something. It turned into one of the most important characteristics of capitalism, which obstructs “mechanisms of reaching understanding”. In the digital age, speed has become a separate sociocultural phenomenon and a parameter of management that changes all social practices, including science, research, and education. Cybernetics rules not only technologies and production of goods, but production of knowledge as well.

According to Peters, cybernetics or “fast capitalism” with its current digital and information technologies, scalability, global influence, and agility emasculates university systems, connecting them with electronic schemes that are based on mathematical algorithms. These schemes are, primarily,  the basis for joint scientific and research projects carried out by universities. Universities become the key players in national ecosystems. Competitiveness there depends on the speed with which scientific knowledge can be generated, commercialized, and transferred into production of goods for the global market. The government tries to increase the speed, suggesting to universities to be more entrepreneurial, so universities will demand less and less financial support from the state. And the government is very creative in this regard, as it makes universities compete for the budgets. In fact, universities of today have two basic options: either to participate in the endless race for money in exchange for producing and commercializing knowledge, or to refuse to participate in this race, stop competing, and rest in peace.

- However, cybernetic capitalism does not only “take” from universities, but also “gives” them tools to generate new knowledge. For example, the number of publications in lists of references used to be limited by the speed of “manual” translation. Now we have the google translator that has facilitated the process and broken new grounds for research.

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- By the way, Google has given researchers grounds for serious concern. Siva Vaidhyanathan, an American researcher, in his paper “The Googlization of Universities (And Why We Should Worry)" wrote that universities and Google have established a relationship that may be called an “inconvenient domesticity”. This is an outcome of Google’s attempts to improve or replace many services provided for universities. For example, Google has radically changed the routine for university libraries and postal services. Google is used to merging and getting everything under its brand. It has contributed a lot to making the global information ecosystem more democratic and seamless. As a result we have a commercialized higher education and serious problems with the standards of scientific information. Besides, Google Scholar is used as an expert system in ranking researchers according to their publication indexes. Not many people know that Google can increase indexes, as well as decrease them, depending on whether its analytics include only officially published works, or their pre-printed copies too. In other words, the reputation of researchers today depends on technologies too.   Siva Vaidhyanathan calls on universities to change their relationships with Google that enforce Google’s values alien to the academic community.  

- Is everything really so bad?

- Everything is neither bad, nor good. It is just the way it is. We live and work in this reality and we have to see all technological opportunities and risks. I do not believe that somebody can really say “no” to using Google technologies in professional activity. But we must be aware of the risks and downsides of the system. We should not fully trust it when it comes to ranking researchers and their contribution to science. Or when we use references for our publications and projects. Authors should be picky in a good way. What Google offers us as free tools cannot be a basis for either slow or fast knowledge that is supposed to be taken seriously.

The solution is the following. People working with any kinds of knowledge must always control the technologies that they use. Otherwise, technologies will start controlling and evaluating people.

The interview was conducted by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan