Monday, June 13, 2011

'Diffusion of Knowledge and Understanding' in a Digital Age

by Jeff Stanger

The Economist's Matthew Bishop offers an interesting comparison of the societal impact of IBM and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, as each reaches its 100th birthday this month.

A strong thread that runs through the piece is of both institutions' support for research and dissemination, aka "information." They both appreciated that whether the goal was commercial success or making a dent in challenging social and policy problems, undertaking research and turning it into useful information were irreplaceable pieces of the puzzle. Bishop notes:

In a way, therefore, IBM and the Carnegie Corporation had similar missions. The Carnegie Corporation's explicit goal was to "promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding". Thomas Watson senior, who ran IBM for over 40 years, made "Think" its motto and built the business around "the idea that information was going to be the big thing in the 20th century", according to Richard Tedlow, author of "The Watson Dynasty". (emphasis added)

Bishop cites a number of specific examples of the outcomes of this commitment to quality information.

On Carnegie:

The foundation and sister organisations commissioned research that would help shape entire professions. The Flexner Report of 1910 led to the overhaul of medical education, inspiring similar efforts focused on the law and on teaching.

The Carnegie Corporation also paid for two reports that fundamentally changed America's conception of itself. The first, in 1944, was "An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy", by Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist. It showed that African-Americans were being held back by widespread and institutionalised white racism. The second, published in 1959, was "The American High School Today", by James Conant. It played a big part in establishing the idea that large schools are the best way to give students a comprehensive education. John Gardner, president of the Carnegie Corporation from 1955, was also important in developing the Elementary and Secondary Education act of 1965, which provided the first large slug of federal funding for public schools. Carnegie money also financed the discovery of insulin, sparing millions of people with diabetes from an early death.


As well as making an important commercial entry into the public arena, by providing the backbone of a new social-security system introduced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935, IBM also spent a lot of money on research. By 1935 it employed 300 engineers and, Watson reckoned, some 95% of its profits were generated by innovations introduced since 1917. This effort soon expanded through partnerships with universities and embraced pure research as well as the more applied, commercially driven sort.

So what has changed from 1911 to 2011? Surely not the need for research and dissemination on issues of public importance. Social and policy challenges have only gotten bigger and more complex, and therefore the need for rigorous research to measure the scope and nature of these problems has never been greater. That's why foundations continue to invest in it. What's changed as a result of digital technology is the rendering of this knowledge. It is here where I think we can do a better job of investing. CDI's review of the landscape shows that most research of the sort foundations fund looks like it did in 1944 — reports, only this time they're PDF documents. Despite the revolutionary changes in digital technology, this basic informational vehicle hasn't changed. We can do better.

If afforded today's technology for distributing and consuming information, would Carnegie have funded static linear narratives of research findings in the form of "reports," or perhaps paid for something closer to Al Gore's "Our Choice" iPad app? Would Carnegie have put dollars behind a thoughtful but immediately out-of-date policy brief, or instead opted for a richly interactive web application that could instantly update itself with the latest data? The Carnegie Corporation itself has developed a Dissemination Program to grapple with some of these questions that arise from "a revolution in how the public encounters new ideas."

From this point forward, the philanthropically-funded knowledge that will be capable of "fundamentally changing America's conception of itself" won't just be transmitted digitally, it will be rendered digitally. The technology won't merely speed its trip from A to B, but change what it looks like when it gets there. This knowledge will be written natively for digital tablets, in advanced web browsers, on Net-connected multimedia smartphones, perhaps even in game form. It will be delivered not always as cooked and plated documents, but as the raw ingredients: data. Impactful research won't be broadcast from on high, but collaboratively created through the active participation of its subjects.

One hundred years after the grandfather of American philanthropy wrote "diffusion of knowledge and understanding" into the mission of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, we have the opportunity to combine the rigorous study of society's challenges with revolutionary interactive digital presentations of that knowledge. Let's hope that in 2111, when the centennial history of how we grasped this opportunity is written, it won't be a PDF download.

Comments welcome...