Throughout history, knowledge has been a scarce commodity. In the past, if you heard that there were gnomes running around your house you believed it. If a scientist said that the world was flat, you had to believe it. If a priest said that the smallpox virus was caused by angry gods, you believed that as well. One of the reasons for this is that the general public’s access to information has been limited. And even if many have searched for knowledge for a long time, it was extremely limited in an analogue world. Knowledge took time to acquire and was limited by the speed of the transportation modes that we had access to. Until very recently we had to stroll nicely down to the library if we needed to know something. Media such as television, radio and the morning paper rationed out doses of limited news. And if we wanted to buy something we had to blindly trust what the sales representative that knocked on the door or stood in the shop said.
The rest is history, as we say. The volume of knowledge that a normal person in the slow agricultural communities of the 1800s received during an entire lifetime was equivalent to what we find in the Sunday edition of our daily newspaper. Today, we are all well aware that we have too much knowledge rather than too little. We are currently witnessing an unprecedented knowledge explosion, that the American writer and systems theorist Richard Buckminster Fuller showed in his analyses. In 1982 he introduced a statistical model called Buckminster Fuller’s Knowledge Doubling Curve. Using the model, he demonstrated that the quantity of knowledge in the world is doubling faster and faster. For example, historically it took 1,800 years – between 100 B.C. and 1700 A.D. – to double the quantity of knowledge.1 Then it only took 200 years, until the beginning of the 1900s, before the quantity of knowledge doubled again. Between 1900 and 1950 the quantity doubled again, followed by a new doubling between 1950 and 1960. Following Fuller’s death, IBM complemented this development curve with a prediction that in the year 2020 we will double the amount of knowledge around us every 12 hours.2
There were 5 Exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days. | Eric Schmidt, former CEO, Google
The knowledge explosion is occurring everywhere around us, but it is not easy to see and is difficult to track. The quantity of knowledge expands ten times faster than the growth of any other product on the planet. Globalization and population growth are two large drivers behind this development. But above all, it is the Internet that lies behind this development.
The increased focus on education and knowledge is another driver. According to the World Bank, there are 18 million scientists today and the number of scientific articles that are published every year has increased consistently for more than 50 years. The number of doctoral students in the world as doubled every 15 years and 90 percent of all researchers that have ever lived are alive today.3 For an established researcher, this means that almost all scientific articles have been written under one’s lifetime. Therefore, it is a challenge and a requirement to not only produce new knowledge but to constantly stay updated and abreast within one’s research area to stay in the game. Most researchers today devote between 25 and 50 percent of their time just keeping up to date with what is happening in their field. A consequence of this development is that the more knowledge we have, the faster that knowledge becomes dated.
This also raises a central question for our societies, organizations and individuals: how can we navigate amongst all this information? Especially when we compare it to human evolution. Calculations indicate that digital technology has developed seven million times faster than the human brain’s management of information. It is becoming difficult for us humans to keep up with this pace of development. Our brains have the same volume and anatomy that Cro-Magnon man had, 40,000 years ago. Man’s average IQ certainly increased over the centuries, but the latest statistics imply that this development has stopped, or even reversed.4
Researchers call this the “Flynn effect,” named after the New Zealand political scientist James Flynn who discovered that the results of intelligence tests over a long period of time increase every year.5 This phenomenon has been observed all over the world. The average increase in IQ has been about three to seven IQ points per decade, but has recently begun to flatten out in the West. Regardless of how much human IQ increases or decreases the difference is much greater, and humans become relatively less knowledgeable every day because, in practice, it is impossible to stay up to date. This is the paradox of knowledge: with access to information we should in theory understand the world better, but the result is the exact opposite. The more knowledge there is, the less we know in relative terms.
One consequence of this knowledge explosion is that we have more and more difficulty creating an overview of everything that is produced. But there is an important conclusion to be drawn in this context. Before the knowledge explosion took off there was a great imbalance of power. Access to the same knowledge, primarily via the Internet, has evened out this imbalance. Previous authorities, such as doctors, teachers, politicians, consultants and not least sales reps are gradually losing their knowledge advantage. With a few quick clicks a patient, a student, a citizen or a customer today can question what is said. Being a unique bearer of knowledge in today’s society is therefore much more difficult than it was just a few years ago. But does this mean that doctors, teachers and sales reps have lost their raison d’être? No, it isn’t really that simple.
For creative people this opens up great new opportunities to help people to navigate in a rapid flood of news and alternatives, and thereby create value – something that is perhaps particularly important for sales reps. Even if a customer today is armed with access to the entire world’s collective knowledge, the selection is too large. The more information they have access to, the more difficult it is to decide. In many cases this leads to insecurity, more difficult decision-making processes and in many cases “non-decisions.” In behavioral economics this is usually called “Status Quo,” which is a form of bias where we elect to keep what we already have by doing nothing, a behavior that gets stronger when information becomes too complex or there are too many alternatives. For a sales rep or a sales organization, therefore, one of the biggest questions should be how one can help the customer to sort through all this knowledge and thereby contribute to creating a more secure purchasing decision.
1 Buckminster Fuller, R. & Kuromiya, K. (1982). Critical Path. New York: St Martins Griffin.
2 Learning solutions (2017, 10 October). Marc My Words: The Coming Knowledge Tsunami. [blog post]. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/2468/marc-my-words-the-coming-knowledge-tsunami
3 Future of Life Institute (2015, 5 November). 90 percent Of All The Scientists That Ever Lived Are Alive Today. [blog post]. Downloaded 2018-10- 22 https://futureoflife.org/2015/11/05/90-of-all-the-scientists-that-ever-lived-are-alive-today
4 Höjer, H. (2017, 27 December). Intelligensen sjunker i Skandinavien. [blog post]. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://fof.se/artikel/iq-sjunker-i-de-skandinaviska-landerna
5 Flynn, J.R. (1984). The mean IQ of Americans: Massive gains 1932 to 1978. Psychological Bulletin 95, 29–51.