Joel Mokyr: Knowledge, Technology, and the Economy

Article excerpt

As the Internet becomes more ubiquitous, the amount of open source software and OA publications increase. Government and foundation research funding are also increasingly requiring researchers to publish OA sources and/or to make methods and findings available through repositories and self-archiving. As a result, the access costs (fees involved in acquiring, organizing, processing, storing, transmitting, and disseminating knowledge) for information users are declining.

Joel Mokyr, professor of economic history at Northwestern University and Tel Aviv University in Israel, believes that sustainable growth of the economy is based on expanding knowledge and technology and decreasing knowledge access costs, all of which may be achieved with open source and OA.

Mokyr's Background

A prolific writer and researcher with broad interests, Mokyr is the author of 11 books and more than 100 articles and reviews. For Mokyr, knowledge goes beyond information, science, and technology--it encompasses all forms of recorded information as well as knowledge residing in people's heads. (In his work, Mokyr prefers using the term "knowledge" to "information" or "science.") In our conversation in early May, we discussed his work on the production, value, and use of knowledge.

As a historian, Mokyr takes a long view of his subject--he includes the social, cultural, and political aspects of knowledge and technology, as well as economic measurements. His belief that economic growth is driven by the expansion of useful knowledge underlies his work. He explained that sustainable growth that continues year after year is based on knowledge and productivity.

Access to Knowledge

Mokyr values the organization of knowledge, its classification, and cataloging. Catalogs, taxonomies, and other organizational tools facilitate access to knowledge. Mokyr pointed out that access costs have been steadily decreasing. This decline stimulates and advances the expansion of knowledge.

Besides the ones previously mentioned, access costs may also include verification and interpretation fees. Acquisition of knowledge can provide access to best practices, techniques, technology, and beliefs about the universe.

The Rise of Knowledge

Mokyr points out that, in the 17th century, science was in the public domain with full disclosure of methods and findings. Knowledge was disseminated and communicated through printing, writing, and meetings in pubs, coffeehouses, and salons. After 1750, meetings became more formal, and science and professional societies were formed. By 1800, there were hundreds of journals published in Europe. The discoveries of the 17th century provided the base for the growth of knowledge about the universe. Placing scientific findings in the public domain is the ultimate aim of today's OA movement.

One of Mokyr's special interests is the Industrial Revolution, including the conditions and developments that led to it. This history gives a context for understanding how our system of publishing, knowledge dissemination, and intellectual property developed. Mokyr said:

Societies know things beyond what an individual knows through a network of distributed knowledge. We understand how this network works. People write books and put them in the library. People can read those books in the library. People who need places of learning attend schools, universities, and academies. They exchange knowledge, they meet at conferences, and they publish articles. In some sense, the rise of modern useful knowledge is the biggest open source endeavor in history. It is huge. Scientists publish and place their things in the public realm.

While anyone who has access to a library can go there to read items, this doesn't mean that the material is accessible to everyone. Mokyr pointed out that this network--and all its activities--is just the beginning. In the past 20 or 30 years, we have reached a level no one could have anticipated. …