50 1 ASK MAGAZINE
The Knowledge Noteboo
The Costs of Knowledge
BY LAURENCE PRUSAK
One of the defining features of society and the
economy at the beginning of the twenty-first
century is the plummeting cost of working with
information. The IT revolution, which started
its public life slowly in the mid-1950s, picked up
tremendous steam in the decades that followed.
By the end of the century, the cost of accruing
and distributing information had fallen to levels
that would have been inconceivable a few dozen
A computer scientist I know recently took
his twelve-year-old son to a baseball game. The
boy bought a box of candy that contained a little
very small, cheaply made calculator.
This boy, who lives with pretty sophisticated
machinery, disdainfully tossed the toy into the
nearest trash can. His father retrieved it and
brought it home to look closely at it. He found
that this trivial toy had more computing power
than the largest machines built during the Second
World War! All that change has happened in my
own lifetime. The computing power of the mission
control center that got Apollo to the moon in the
sixties-a hugely expensive marvel at the time-is
utterly insignificant today.
The effect of cheap and seemingly ubiquitous
computing on the search for and retrieval of
information is apparent to all. Less obvious is the
fact that knowledge is not subject to these changes.
In fact, one can make the case that knowledge
costs have actually increased over the same period.
Let's look at why information and knowledge are
so different in this regard.
Some recent research I conducted with some
colleagues divided up the actual activities that
working with knowledge entails into four discrete
activities: searching for knowledge, negotiating
with knowledge sources, adapting and adopting
new knowledge, and distributing knowledge. All
these human activities take time and attention.
While technology can play a role in mitigating their
costs, knowledge still p