Specialized knowledge production and (the limits of) its remuneration

Manfred Füllsack [manfred.fuellsack at univie.ac.at]

Basic Income as an alternative?


The presentation will try to assess the potential of a Basic Income to solve or at least to alleviate a fundamental problem commonly met in the context of "specialized knowledge production": the problem of its remuneration , or in other words, the problem that not every kind of specialized knowledge by itself is able to generate sufficient revenues to enable those who produce, process or distribute it to live on.

Based not on "ethical" conceptions of the one or the other type, but on a general theory of differentiation the presentation will 1.) try to show that the detachment of the terms of knowledge production and the terms of its remuneration as it would be incited by a Basic Income is nothing essentially new in history. And 2.) it will give an overview about the current social, economical and political discussions, problems and prospects for the introduction of a Basic Income.

Working paper - Not to be quoted without permission of the author!

The following considerations will try to assess the chances of a Basic Income to "solve" or at least to "alleviate" a fundamental problem commonly met in the context of specialized knowledge production: i.e. the problem of its remuneration, or in other words, the problem that not every kind of specialized knowledge production is creating sufficient revenues to enable specialized knowledge producers to live on and to continue their activities.

What is Basic Income?

"Basic Income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement", according to the definition of BIEN, the Basic Income European Network (http://www.basicincome.orgRemote link)

Basic Income thus is a mean that detaches incomes from any kind of labor activity, performance, service, commodity or good so far considered conditional to incomes. Thus one might say, Basic Income detaches these activities, performances, services, commodities or goods from the overall social demand for them. In regard to our subject, it detaches supply and demand of specialized knowledge production.

Exactly this, however, is, as I will try to show, nothing new in regard to specialized knowledge production.

My assumptions are that

  1. specialized knowledge production is per se subjected to immanent dynamics that differentiate and specialize it and thus inevitably create "gaps" between its supply and demand.
  2. These gaps endanger the continuation of specialized knowledge production and thus constantly ask for ways to "bridge" them.
  3. However, the principal ways society so far has "convened" on in order to solve these problems, are
    1. themselves products of specialized knowledge production and therefore subjected to the same immanent differentiation dynamics.
    2. And they are as a rule exclusive. In other words they include some kinds of knowledge production and knowledge producers into its range of effect, and exclude others.
  4. As a consequence, they so far constantly tend to widen the gaps between supply and demand of knowledge production which they were meant to bridge.
  5. In regard to these fundamental problems I finally shall consider some aspects of Basic Income in regard to its chances to bridge these gaps more "effectively".

1. The "immanent logic of specialized knowledge production"

Why is knowledge production permanently differentiating and specializing?

Knowledge production is, as is well known, in many ways a very unique and particular activity. One of its characteristics is that it in its own rights constantly and inevitably generates not-knowledge, i.e. ignorance.

Knowledge production, one might say, carries a "dark side" which is responsible for the fact that the more we know, the more we usually also know how much we do not yet know. Knowledge production, so to speak, steadily produces knowledge about things, spheres and phenomena about which it would be good to know more. Every knowledge producer probably knows the annoying phenomenon that with every new book for instance that he opens in order to inform on existing solutions for his problems he encounters dozens of more books also promising prospective solutions. Think about scientific books in this regard, that usually contain literature lists in the end with other scientific books worth reading which in their own turn contain again literature lists, and so on.

More abstractly explained, the reason why knowledge production constantly produces ignorance lies in the circumstance that every particle of newly generated knowledge defines a new state of knowledge, a new cultural level one might say, from which the world appears under new aspects. Knowing how to construct gasoline engines for instance brings up the possibility to put them on wheels and therewith to mobilize society. As a consequence however, this knowledge also creates ignorance about how to guarantee a steady supply of petrol for instance, or the provision of parking spots in big cities etc. Knowing about how to operate computers brings up the possibility to connect them to each other and in consequence creates ignorance about how to cope with internet viruses, spam mails, hoaxes etc. In other words, while the production of knowledge is solving problems, it inevitably at the same time generates new problems that were not to be seen before this knowledge was available.

Unfortunately, this is (as can be shown more consistently in terms of System Theory) an inevitable feature of knowledge production. I will call it therefore the "immanent logic of knowledge production". It is a feature that incessantly differentiates and specializes knowledge production, because each ignorance (each problem) that arises anew in consequence to the creation of knowledge asks for new knowledge (solution) in its own turn. The attempts to create these constantly anew demanded knowledges (i.e. the attempts to solve these problems) thus can do no other than to incessantly differentiate and specialize. And as we well know, they tend to differentiate and specialize up to a degree on which this differentiation and specialization itself becomes problematic in manifold ways and starts to demand solutions in its own turn, solutions for which, in order to generate them, again knowledge producers have to specialize - knowledge producers, so to speak, that are specialized on the problem of specialized knowledge production.

2. The demand for specialized knowledge production

Specialized knowledge is, as the term suggests, knowledge that distinguishes from common knowledge by the very fact that it is as a rule not utilized all the time, but only in certain special situations, and it is as a rule also not utilized by all of society, but only by a small specialized part of it. Hence, specialized knowledge can be distinguished from common knowledge by its relation to market demand. While common knowledge might be demanded commonly, specialized knowledge is knowledge demanded only on specialized markets.

While one might suggest that common market demand and common knowledge production develop somehow related to each other - by definition it wouldn't be common knowledge if it wouldn't be demanded commonly -, this is not necessarily the case with specialized market demand and specialized knowledge production. Since the dynamics of the one as well as the dynamics of the other are no longer determined by common impulses but each in its own turn by very special ones, demand and supply tend to substantially diverge in regard to specialized knowledge production.

This divergence is well known and manifold described in artistic and scientific history, but lets still illustrate it with a well-known example from the history of specialized knowledge production: (as we simplifying assume) the immanent logic of mathematical knowledge production in the first half of the 19th century has brought up a problem complex that challenged a knowledge producer by the name of George Boole to detach mathematical formalisms from the interpretation of their content and develop by this an abstract algebra that even the highly specialized market for mathematics did not have much demand for at the time. As we know, however, this algebra became highly demanded more than hundred years later due to the immanent logics of a completely different specialized market for knowledge products - the computer and IT-technology.

As the example shows, the immanent logics of specialized knowledge production and the immanent logics of specialized markets are not always and necessarily once and for all pointing in opposite directions. It therefore does not seem absolutely obvious that supply and demand never can meet again. In regard to this possibility, society has undertaken, as we know, various efforts to "connect" or "correlate" supply and demand of specialized knowledge production. In order to secure the continuation of this production (the necessity of which after all has been recognized at least at times by some society members, although, as we will see, rather due to economic interests than to "enlighted" farsightedness), society has, as we, a bit sarcastically, might say, "convened" on a couple of institutions in the hope to bridge the steadily rising gap between supply and demand in regard to knowledge production.

Two famous examples for such institutions we shall regard a bit closer. They are: 1.) intellectual property rights, and 2.) scientific institutions.

Ad 1. intellectual property rights

The first intellectual property rights were, as far as we know, introduced in regard to rather particular economic interests in the 15th and 16th century, when sovereigns in England and Italy considered it beneficial to concede privileges for the commercialization of inventions to certain interest groups. The first "copyright" for example has not been granted as a property right to authors in general, but in reaction to the invention of the printing press in 1476 to the London Stationers Company, the guild of British letterpress printers, in the form of a privilege to exclusively sale their products and to find and destroy illegal copies. The first known patent for an industrial innovation seems to have been the privilege of a certain Filippo Brunelleschi in 1421 to exploit his invention of a crane on a boat to transport marble blocks for three years exclusively.

In both cases the introduction of these privileges have been reactions to particular economic interests and not to the general problem of the differentiation of supply and demand of knowledge production. In both cases, however, the underlying problem has been the well-known fact that knowledge products can to some extent be copied without being consumed. Knowledge thus can be commercialized by those who don't have it, and can be sold by those who don't owe it. Therefore with the progressing differentiation of knowledge production and market dynamics, i.e. with the divergence of supply and demand of specialized knowledge, the probability was on the rise that the production and commercialization of knowledge will differentiate as well. In other words, the risk was increasing that others than specialized knowledge producers will profit from their products and specialized knowledge production therefore might come to a halt.

At first, this problem was tackled by conceding monopolies to certain individuals or lobbies in order to give them exclusive chances to satisfy occurring demands without competition. However, these concessions soon proved to have negative effects on the progress of knowledge production itself. Individually granted copyrights as well as patents could do no other than to include some and exclude others from the use and from the sale of knowledge, thus restricting access also for potential innovators. As a consequence, in the year 1624 the British parliament undertook it to abolish most individually granted monopolies in the famous "Statute of Monopolies" by generalizing them in special "Letters of Patent" for all "first and actual inventors" of intellectual products for up to 14 years. Eventually, as we know, intellectual products were attributed as formal property to its authors in the French patent law of 1791 and finally in most industrialized countries after the economic crisis of 1873 when free trade ideology lost ground against more regulative economical conceptions.

The producers of specialized knowledge therewith seemed to have gained an effective mean to keep their production at least somehow in touch with the dynamics on specialized markets. At least they now should be able to answer arising demands on the knowledge market exclusively on their own. With the institution of intellectual property rights they should be able to promote, with whatever kind of revenues the commercialization of their products might bring, "the progress of science and useful arts", as the US-constitution in this regard states.

However, as we know, intellectual property rights are plagued with a wide variety of problems. At first, the very fact that they are highly specialized knowledge products themselves asks for further specialization in order to be able to process, control and maintain them. And here again, the more special and particular intellectual property rights have to become in reaction to the steady influx of new forms of knowledge, new forms of copying, new forms of archiving, new forms of commercialization, new markets for knowledge, copying, archiving and commercialization etc., the more the degree of overall specialization rises, and the more supply and demand of specialized knowledge diverges. The consequences are well known: highly bueroacratique organizations that hopelessly lag behind actual developments, and administrative costs of no relation to what can be gained by intellectual property rights. In other words, what was meant to "bridge" the rising gap between supply and demand only deepens it. Intellectual property rights loose their potential to provide means for specialized knowledge production. In the realm of science, for instance, measurable stimulating effects on research they have only in some disciplines like pharmacy or chemistry. (Gröndahl 2002: 95) And this, in spite of concerted efforts for example of the US-government to install them as prime incentives, by setting up patent-departments in several big universities in the country, starting in the 1970ies.

Second, intellectual property rights, even if generalized for all producers of knowledge, are still monopolies thus including some and excluding others from the use of knowledge. This bears the danger that some essential innovations or inventions are not made, or more general, that some essential problems are not solved just because those who would have the potential to do so do not have access to the appropriate knowledge.

Examples are manifold and well described in literature: in the case of so called "accumulative technologies" for instance - cars, airplanes, computers etc. - innovations are essentially build on former innovations which can't be realized if one of this former innovations is blocked by a patent. (cf.: Merges/Nelson 1990: 884-898) As a consequence, enterprises tend to strategically obtain patent-portfolios, not for securing revenues, but for "cross licensing" their patents in exchange for needed patents. Or they try to surround their products by patent-thickets, dense webs "of overlapping intellectual property rights that a company must hack its way through in order to actually commercialize new technology" (Shapiro 2001: 1-2)

Other meanwhile well known examples include the patenting of traditional food (e.g. Basmati-rice) or medicine sources of indigenous people (Frein 2002) or the project by Graig Venter for decoding the human genome and trying to patent it for individual commercial exploitation. (Kuhlen 2002).

And third, even if intellectual property rights somehow actually provide certain possibilities to correlate supply and demand of specialized knowledge, their affectivity is after all essentially dependent on the arising of demand. What if it doesn't arise? Or if it doesn't arise at the time when knowledge producers would need it to continue their production? Or if it doesn't arise in their life time at all?

For this case society has convened on a second institution that similarly to intellectual property rights intends to bridge the gaps between supply and demand of specialized knowledge production by factually detaching it.

Ad 2. Scientific institutions

Abstractly regarded the institutionalizing of highly specialized knowledge production might be described as the exemption of knowledge producers from the necessity to care for common problems. Only by sparing them common problems they have a chance to deal with specialized problems. In ancient societies for example, it might have been priests and similar folk who have been exempted from profane every day necessities of common people due to sacrifices and contributions of natural produce that enabled the priests to specialize, lets say, on ideal and orientational questions which were not to be answered on a profane every day base.

A precondition for this, of course, has been a society of sufficient affluence. Social productivity had to be high enough in order to exempt some society members from profane work and "free" them for specialization. Aristotle clear-sightedly described the first mathematicians of Egypt as a consequence of the economic prosperity of the land on the Nile and the English term "school" derives, as we know, from the Greek word schole for "taking a break from work" and the Latin word schola for idleness which later was used to label those activities that monks were doing after work, i.e. when they were trying to solve theoretical, philosophical or scientific problems because the practical work was already done.

The introduction of schools had, as we know, far reaching consequences for the specialization of knowledge production in its own turn. On the one hand, knowledge now had to be organized, systematized and condensed in order to pass it on in the form of tuition. Already this by itself provided new impulses for specialization and soon concerned a lot of annexed issues like didactics, pedagogy, rhetoric and many more. The tasks of knowledge distribution could differentiate from knowledge production therewith freeing the latter from the need to be distributable. Hence, knowledge production in its own right could further detach from societal demand. "Pure" scientists, philosophers, intellectuals lost another important connection to the profane needs of their society and could, if they could afford it, specialize on unteachable issues.

On the other hand, knowledge distribution as well soon started to support the successive detachment of knowledge from social demand. When in Germany for example the plurality of early modern educational institutions was unified in a system of secondary education the universities, i.e. the tertiary educational system found itself confronted with a broad influx of significantly better pre-educated students. University teachers thus, so far bound to broader demand by the necessity to prepare students for highly specialized knowledge production, could significantly raise the abstractness level of their activities. Universities, although still teaching institutions and therefore by definition connected with social demand, were freed from the necessity to teach basics at first and thus could become symbols for processing highly specialized knowledge.

Even more these activities became detached from social demand when due to the reputation and influence the profession of university teachers, of professors, could gain, it became necessary to shelter these professions from political or economic fluctuations. Tenures, standardized wages and other social securities made university teachers nearly impregnable against any fluctuations on the market for specialized knowledge.

And again, detaching specialized knowledge production from social demand further enhances its specialization and differentiation. Subsequently, knowledge production follows its own dynamics - and this in a wide plurality of disciplines which constantly contribute more specialized knowledge to the existing stock of specialized knowledge thus offering an ever increasing variety of competing states of knowledge. As a consequence the half-life of knowledge dramatically decreases. If about hundred years ago, specialized knowledge that someone acquired in the course of his educational process seemed good enough to provide job opportunities for a life time, today the state of demanded knowledge seems to vary within months. Just to invest, lets say, three month into learning to master a state of the art computer program can be no means guarantee that this program will still be state of the art after these three months. The rapidly decreasing half life of specialized knowledge renders teaching syllabi, educational programs and any conception for a carrier to the imponderability of chance. University trainings today change their objectives three or four times while still in progress. And sometimes no training at all seems to be valued already higher than any specialization. A cynical advertising jingle on the radio recently answered the shy admission of a job aspirant not to dispose of any qualification with the pleased outcry of the personnel manager "perfect, then we don't have to retrain you".

What is more, the rapidly decreasing half life of specialized knowledge self-referentially tends to turn back at the conditions of specialized knowledge production itself. The permanent and ever more rapidly proceeding replacement of knowledge by other knowledge, the "succession of epistemes", renders attempts to estimate and value knowledge more and more futile. Today, already a simple quest for books and writings relevant for a given problem, can lead researches into seemingly endless loops of literature research. The amount on available knowledge in certain fields in many cases seems to reach the limits of processibility by single researchers.

Even more grave this problem seems to concern the selection of those who by virtue of their position for example in a specialized organisation for knowledge processing gain definition power on what is relevant and what is not relevant knowledge. Since already in middle ages, the introduction of such organizations (schools, universities, academies etc.) often has been more a consequence of special interests, for example of those of religious orders to keep their dogma and its distribution pure than an immanent necessity of knowledge production itself, the positions in these organisations do not necessarily correlate with the state of the art of knowledge production. The history of science is full of famous examples that impressively demonstrate how far "institutionalized" knowledge production can diverge from knowledge production that follows "its own", or more exactely different dynamics.

Today however, this discrepancy seems to be deepened by the fact that these positions, due to tenures, social securities and many other factors, in many cases dispose of considerable more stability in time than the knowledge that was necessary to obtain them. The power to decide what is relevant and what is not relevant knowledge, however, in many cases is still bound to these positions. Universities rely on them to select their faculty and as a consequence also to choose what knowledge they process and teach. Scientific funds rely on them in order to decide which projects to finance and which not. And also the "users" of knowledge, the consumers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and the broad public, rely on them in order to orientate on what is relevant knowledge.

The more these positions are relied on, however, and the more they are consequently stabilized by reputation and influence gained from political assigments and consulting services for instance, the more the rapidly shortening half-life of modern knowledge tends to detach them from the actual forefront of knowledge production. Spending time on consulting decreases the time for knowledge production, which in regard to the time consuming endeavor of acquiring state of the art knowledge can pose severe problems.

In short, the power to define what is relevant knowledge does not necessarily result from the command of the most advanced knowledge anymore. Knowledge gains relevance dependent on factors external to its production, and thus becomes in terms of its value arbitrarily. If not knowledge itself, but external coincidences like the right position in the right knowledge processing organisation at the right time define what is knowledge then, one might say, knowledge becomes a pray of pure subjectivity. Whoever claims loudest and most convincible to know commands knowledge. Ce la condition post-moderne.

This problem is insofar self-referential in this context as it concerns the debates on how specialized knowledge production, if it is fundamentally detached from demand, should be remunerated. Of course, one might ask: should it be remunerated at all if it is so arbitrarily that all criteria for its evaluation are lost? But if society decides after all to go on solving highly sepcialized problems - may be for completely different reasons: purchasing power for instance of otherwise incomeless knowledge producers - then it seems hard pressed not to do so on the base of conceptions like "equality", "justice", "solidarity" etc. These conceptions are knowledge products themselves and thus subject to postmodern arbitrarity. To process them and use them as the base of distribution orders under postmodern conditions might pose more problems than can be solved.

For this reason we argued in the beginning of our considerations to regard proposed "solutions" for the problems brought up by the differentiations of knowledge production functionally, i.e. in regard to their ability to somehow "lastingly" bridge the various gaps between supply and demand in knowledge production.

By doing so, we found that these "solutions" with which society so far reacted to these gaps themselves contributed to widen them. We conclude from this that supply and demand in specialized knowledge production is per se not lastingly correletable. Therefore, if society wishes to go on solving other than common problems it has to accept that it can not do so in regard to any conceivable demand, i.e. a demand that could somehow cover the costs of knowledge production.

Basic Income

Once society has accepted this fact, it seems only one step away from radically detaching the coverage of costs of specialized knowledge production from these activities themselves by providing at least basic means for them regardless and unconditionally. One possibility to do so might be a Basic Income.

Lets now consider in this regard the functionality of a Basic Income.

  1. Basic Income in its original idea is not exclusive, which means it does not include some beneficiary and exclude others. It thus can not form any kind of monopoly of what ever is done and created under its auspices. By itself it will not stabilize one kind of knowledge production more than any other and it will not promote or value one state of knowledge over any other. Basic Income in this regard seems to apply to and also seems to supply the vast plurality of postmodern knowledge production. By evenly distributing the chances for following the specialization of knowledge to wherever it leads to, it does not per se restrict the immanent logic of specialized knowledge production.
  2. Basic Income however is, as the word indicates, only a basic income meant to supply basic subsistence for knowledge producers to live on. In its original form it does not supply means for more costly knowledge production, for example for machinery, computers, scientific instruments and else. It thus will not succeed to detach knowledge production radically from the demand for it. It can, at best, provide just a basis on which some less demanded branches of this production can proceed to some degree without being harassed by permanent market fluctuations.
  3. Basic Income is itself a product of knowledge production. It thus is subject to the same "immanent logic" of differentiation and specialization that, as we said, all knowledge products are afflicted with. Basic Income therefore will only have a chance to help solving society's problems if implemented as flexible and undogmatic as possible - in order to be able to react to the consequences it inevitably will entail.