Peter Drucker, in his 1969 book The Age of Discontinuity, discusses the increasing role of knowledge in modern societies and suggests:
As a result, it is quite possible that the great new ‘isms’ of tomorrow will be ideologies about knowledge. In tomorrow’s intellectual and political philosophies knowledge may well take the central place that property, i.e. things, occupied in capitalism and Marxism.
This must have seemed like a rather strange idea to most readers in 1969…the great new ‘isms’, and therefore the great political and cultural fault-lines, were going to be about knowledge? Surely, debate about the nature of knowledge must have seemed like something more appropriate for a university philosophy course in epistemology than a likely major subject for the political and media stage.
But, isn’t this precisely what we are seeing now, with all of the assertions and arguments about ‘disinformation’, the assertions about ‘science says’ and resultant reactions and critiques, the revelations about social media bias, and the concerns about potential artificial-intelligence bias? These are all arguments about what constitutes a valid, useful, and true source of information.
The whole idea that it should be possible to present and hear arguments for both sides of an issue…which is the entire basis of our political system and our justice system–is under attack. People argue that they are in danger if they are exposed to a view different from their own. There seems to be a longing for a single, unquestioned source of truth.
Or maybe the whole idea of ‘truth’ is obsolete in many minds. Things have reached the point at which there is actually a need to defend the possibility of objective knowledge existing at all. Maybe one reason for the decreasing interest in the pursuit of objective truth is that most people today are much more insulated from the struggle for survival, and instead of worrying what truths reflect they way the world works–‘how can I keep my hut warm in the depths of winter?’–they worry about what truth-claims reflect the social world which they must navigate and will advance their position in this social world. This is the view of the courtier, rather than that of the merchant, the peasant, or the warrior.
I’ve previously quoted something a wise executive said to me, many years ago:
When you’re running a large organization, you aren’t seeing reality. It’s like you’re watching a movie where you get to see maybe one out of every thousand frame, and from that, you have to figure out what is going on.
If this is true of the person running a large organization, it is even more true of the individual in a democracy, both in his incarnation as a citizen and voter and his incarnation as an individual decision-maker in matters concerning his own life and that of his family. He cannot possibly directly observe all of the factors bearing on, say, the border situation or the war in Ukraine or the Covid vaccines or the stability of the Social Security system, hence, those who control what frames are presented to him–and in what sequence–have tremendous influence.
Those who seek power and/or cling to power generally seek to control what is viewed as truth. Someone at Twitter just remarked:
Fun fact: soviet psychiatry version of DSM 5 had a condition “truthseeking” (правдаискательство) used to commit dissidents for questioning the legitimacy of the bolshevik regime.
I doubt that Drucker foresaw anything as radical as some of the positions taken in today’s fights over knowledge, but overall, his forecast appears to have been a correct one.