The Cheapening of Knowledge

Mike Whelan
Chief Community Officer

By all accounts, Carl Malamud is not a scary man. So when the State of Georgia called him a terrorist, it made headlines.

Malamud is a lawyer and technologist who brings hidden things to light—specifically, legal information.

Through fights involving access to federal databases like PACER and EDGAR, as well as state-level publications like court opinions and legislative annotations, Malamud has made public the knowledge that once was held by an exclusive and paying few.

Not inconsequentially, he has broken down knowledge monopolies, including the one that gave lawyers exclusive access to legal content. Information that has been hard-to-get is now easily accessible to anyone looking for a “Google J.D.”

Under perceived threat, it’s no wonder we lawyers have found terror in his efforts. How can we prove our value if not through exclusivity?


Networked Knowledge Wins

Malamud’s exploits aren’t the only example of siloed knowledge becoming widely available. It’s a trend we’ve seen throughout the modern economy, from travel agents making way for Expedia to doctors fielding questions about WebMD search results. The shift has a major impact on those of us who’ve historically profited from exclusive knowledge.

Philosopher of the internet and society David Weinberger published Too Big to Know in 2012. He argued that the volume and availability of information mean we need to redefine the role of experts.

When “the smartest person in the room is the room”—or the network that informs the tools in the room—experts take on a different social function. Not only do we no longer hold the monopoly over legal information, we can’t even keep the required knowledge for a narrow legal specialization in our minds.

To illustrate the point, he shared some data about entries for the word “psychology” in Encyclopedia Britannica and on Wikipedia.

At the time of his writing, Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry for “psychology” was 180,000 words long, or enough to fill 6 books; Wikipedia’s entry was only 9,000 words, or 1/20th the size of the Encyclopedia’s.

That sounds like a thoroughness-win for the Encyclopedia, but Wikipedia is not limited by the pages of a book. Through links to other pieces of information, Wikipedia’s “psychology” entry can lead you down an infinite number of content rabbit holes. There is no end to the network’s information on psychology.

How do substantive area experts like you compete in such an expansive knowledge economy?


Knowledge is Too Big

The addition of legal information to the internet’s vast network has created a new context for legal counselors. We are losing control over the legal information we’re meant to understand, and that’s mandating a business model shift.

In the early days of specialization, as Weinberger explained, we divided the great mass of capital-k Knowledge into human-brain-sized chunks. Each specialist focused his or her work on his or her assigned chunk. We hired each other for the chunks we didn’t own and a market economy was born.

But we can’t divide knowledge that way anymore. Even in the most specialized areas of law, the chunk of knowledge we deal with every day is too large for a human mind. The administrative state and large corporations have changed the game, each a complex system of countless parties dynamically making decisions, leading to an almost infinite number of possible pivots. And in all that we must advise, we must counsel, and we must lawyer.


What Can You Do?

Availability has made knowledge cheaper, complexity has made knowledge infinite, and demand has made knowledge transparent.

What are we to do in this brave new world of infinite and available knowledge? Is there a business model we can confidently build? What’s the method for a successful modern knowledge practice?

As you begin thinking through these questions, keep the following principles in mind:

  • Exclusivity is a poor justification for value;
  • In the vast network of knowledge, we can’t own exclusivity even in narrow specializations; and
  • Siloing information is poorly adapted to the complexity of modern corporations and the administrative state.

When you see the futility and maladaptation of exclusive access to knowledge, you’ll know you must build your firm on something else. In the next chapter, we’ll use a new transaction as a model for a better way.


Read the next article in the series:
Your Latest Transaction

All articles in the series:
The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner

  1. The Cheapening of Knowledge
  2. Your Latest Transaction
  3. The Legal Knowledge Business
  4. Knowledge Management
  5. Making Experts Out of Employees
  6. What Clients Want
  7. The Advisor’s Burden
  8. The Modern Knowledge Firm


Tags: The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner


Mike Whelan
Chief Community Officer

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