The cost and value of knowledge
I was a student in France when I discovered the Internet and the World Wide Web. At that time, I didn’t realize the value of the thing, even though I taught myself HTML from what was available at the time (even if I don’t remember the sites – they probably have disappeared into Limbo).
When I began my professional life, a project director of mine joked about the difference between the developer and the expert: “The expert knows about the cabinet where the documentation is”. Some time after that, I found this completely untrue, as one of my senior developer constantly found the answers to my questions: he used Google through and through and it helped me tremendously. The cabinet had become the entire Internet and everything could be found provided time and toil. I soon became a master of the Google query.
At this time, when I had a problem, I asked Google, found the right answer and reproduced it on my project. This was all good but it didn’t teach you much – script kiddies can do the same. At the same time, however, I found an excellent site for French Java developers: “Développons en Java” by Jean-Michel Doudoux. This site was the first I knew of where you could learn something step by step, not only reproduce a recipe. I eagerly devoured the whole thing, going as far as copying it on my computer to be able to read it when offline (a very common occurence then). This was made possible by M. Doudoux passion and will to make his knowledge available!
Even better, a recent trend, from which Coursera has been the best marketer, cooperates with well-established universities to make standard in-the-room courses available… for free. For the first time in history, knowledge has become a costless commodity and it’s something that can be compaired to Gutenberg’s press during the Renaissance. Where previously books had to be written by hand thus preventing diffusion of the understanding they contained, printed press made books at relatively low costs available everywhere.
The first natural reaction is the “Wow!” effect. I personally am very interested in foreign languages, Japan and pyschology: I could learn so much about any (or all) of these subjects without even leaving my home. Moreover, so many people are kept away from education, not by a lack of intellectual prowess, but just because they haven’t been born rich enough or in a part of Earth where there’s no university. Imagine if all people could learn about humanities, democracy, engineering, whatever. This could well provoke a new Age of Enlightnemet, but this time not only in Europe but encompassing the whole globe.
However, there’s a negative side to this coin. When something is made free, people tend to give it no value and waste is sure to follow. There are plenty of examples everywhere, the worst I know of is the free water policy for Qatari households in Qatar. Thus, we have to be very careful about that – knowledge has been acquired with much effort, period. If it’s made freely available, there’s the risk that people treat it as a common commodity.
Worse, both public and private sectors invest in research and knowledge. If it isn’t sold for a profit (even marginal), what are the odds both (at least the latter) would continue their investments. The business model for such services is still to be found. A hint would be recruiting: if the course is one of the best, recruiters would perhpas be interested in getting their paws on contact data of those who passed with flying colors?
My conclusion to these points is that providing people with free knowledge is something very commendable, but it shouldn’t lower its value, only its cost.