From The Wall Street Journal Book Review: ‘The Power of Knowledge,’ by Jeremy Black

The review is by Roger Kimball


Although deeply grounded in history from the Middle Ages on down, this book also conjures with contemporary issues. Some are technical, like the vistas of information unraveled in the human genome project. Some are political. Until fairly recently, Mr. Black notes, central governments lacked the mechanisms to intervene consistently in everyday life. That, as anyone who can pronounce the acronym “NSA” knows, has changed dramatically. Mr. Black devotes an entire chapter to what he calls “the scrutinized society.” The effort to control public opinion and the flow of information has been most flagrant in totalitarian regimes, but he shows that in democracies, too, information is “filtered and deployed as part of the battle for public opinion.”

The growth and precision of information about society brings with it a pressure toward centralization and consolidation. But information doesn’t flow in one direction: There is also an antiphonal movement of dissent. In the 17th century, Mr. Black writes, “the habit of obedience towards authority was matched by a stubborn, and largely successful, determination to preserve local privileges, in part by rejecting demands for information that might be used to curtail these privileges.” Mr. Black concludes by observing that, though information serves people in power, it also gives “people more oversight and control over their rulers.” The jury may still be out on that.

Mr. Black has given us an eloquent paean to the transformative power of information. I hope it isn’t too impish to offer a countervailing observation or reminder about information itself. It comes from the current-day mathematician David Guaspari : “Comparing information and knowledge,” he wrote, “is like asking whether the fatness of a pig is more or less green than the designated hitter’s rule.”


The social networks are being mined by political campaigns. No one has yet done this more effectively than Obama.  Rand Paul and possibly others from the right are desperately trying to play catch up.

Government agencies have tools to follow the most minute activities and desires of its citizens and this can have totalitarian consequences in ways we are probably unable to imagine.  Yet citizens also have access to infinite data, information and opinions that can be used to hold their government accountable in ways that the old media could never attempt.

It seems that it is critical to be aware of any attempt of government agencies to control internet media sources.  Recent attempts to define what is a journalist, to monitor newsrooms, and to access sources without warrants should cause us all to pause.

Knowledge and Power by George Gilder takes a different approach.  Gilder contends that knowledge is spread wide and deep in the private sector and that wealth grows when knowledge and power converge.  This rarely happens in government.  It is why central economic planning fails. The use of social networks and other online data sources may provide a lot of data and information, but that falls far short of the knowledge that is needed to use the information wisely.  In fact too much information may at some point be antithetical to knowledge. Nassim Taleb suggested that too much data and information gives rise to relationships and conclusions that are not justified by facts and leads us to monstrous errors in judgment.

While we are aware of the use of technology in the private sector we are just becoming aware of its use as a tool of government power.