Experience Strategist, RTC
Crowdsourcing our Expertise.
"The time when it was possible to
be universally well-informed is
past. The ideal of an 'all-round'
education is out of date; it has
been destroyed by the progress of
Knowledge is a complex concept in philosophy. The quote
to the left, which questions whether we can obtain both
breadth and depth of knowledge, implies that what we
know about the world is increasing too fast for any one
person to keep up. I disagree. With technology and the
desire to share, we create what I call “collective
knowledge”, the aggregate knowledge of all people. By
leveraging the expertise of others, we can become informed on almost any topic
whenever we feel the need.
Even in the 1920s I believe it was possible to be universally informed, however I do not
think Russell and his peers were prepared for it. The mindset was wrong; it was not
efficient to try and understand everything. Industrial developments from the early 1900’s
were still moving the world forward rapidly and for over a century, economists preached
specialization: develop your inherent talents then figure out how to pair those skills with
someone else’s. The problem is that specialization constrains knowledge transfer to
within a specific industry, primarily to gain economies of scale. The philosophy mutes the
benefits of expanding communication channels to leverage the wealth of human
information more broadly. Thus, technology, while improving, was mainly used to build
products that brought everyday convenience not for connectivity and conversation.
Eighty-six years later, the level of knowledge and information in the world continues to
increase exponentially. As technology advanced so has humanity’s bank of knowledge
to the point where, some might make the case that Russell’s philosophy is as true, if not
more so, than ever before. From personal computers, to instant messaging, to social
media and smartphones, humanity as a whole is learning more and more in real time.
For the first time in history, everyone can be a creator of knowledge and that knowledge
can be made public in an instant. Technology has broken down temporal, distance, and
language barriers. People can discover something, have it questioned, discuss it with
the other side of the globe, and advance the discovery, all in a matter of seconds.
How then, amidst a constant state of flux, could anyone be well rounded or universally
informed? How could anyone disagree with Russell?
Let me explain.
The growing power of technology and its seamless integration into our lives, means that
it is time for the definition of “informed” to change. I truly believe that a person can be
well informed simply because they have the thoughts and opinions of the entire world at
As technology continues to transform into an extension of ourselves, it is becoming less
necessary for us to be individually knowledgeable. We are moving towards an age of
science fiction where we have all the knowledge we could want, or, alternatively, the
means to ask new questions, sitting in our pocket. Soon it will be common practice to be
wearing computers all over our body and that technology will make us more aware of our
selves and surroundings than ever before. We will be able to understand languages we
cannot speak1, find places we have never been, laugh with people we have not seen in
years, all without even breaking a stride.
At a certain point, it is going to become difficult to draw the line between ourselves and
our technology. We are connected. We are connected to that “collective knowledge”,
and when we need new information we simply need to draw on the crowd for guidance.
Individuals and organizations, we are not limited by what we have been taught or what
we have experienced. At any time we can crowdsource the experience we need and use
that knowledge to move ourselves forward.
So how is this any different than specialization? While technically we are still trading our
knowledge with each other, this is the first time we can access it with such immediacy,
for free. The information is just waiting, ready to be integrated and adapted and put to
use in new ways. The people who are truly universally informed are the ones who are
skilled at doing just that. If you can tap into that collective knowledge, understand it, and
reshape it to suit your needs, you can be well rounded. Forbes2 recently featured an
article on a new specialty based on this practice, and I have become somewhat
enamored with it.
Meet the Generalist.
These types possess the well-rounded training Russell doubts, and that gives them
some foundational insight into different skillsets and expertise. They may be better at
some then others, but they know where and how to search for information, allowing them
to choose the knowledge they need at any given time. This is not the jack-of-all-trades
that is traditionally looked down upon; this is a new breed that leverages technology and
their peers to bring unique perspectives to environments dominated traditionally by
The Generalist is the archetype that defies Bertrand Russell’s assertion and they are
becoming more and more prevalent. Each new generation (including the one writing this
paper) is growing up with an affinity for using technology that is almost second nature.
Unlike during Russell’s time, information technology is being universally recognized for
its range of applications and everyday practicality. Now it’s even being integrated into
classrooms, familiarizing us early on with the variety of ways being connected can
enhance our lives.
Bertrand Russell was not wrong, based on his own limited knowledge; the world has
come along way since 1928. But we live in an era of connectivity that he could not
imagine in his wildest dreams and as we continue to change, so must the meanings of
characteristics like “knowledgeable” and “informed”. Though we remain constrained by
what we are physically capable of perceiving, we are no longer limited by our own
individual experience. Technology has made it so that together, we can be universally