Knowledge as Power: New Forms of Capital

Dr. Lee Komito; Dept of Library and Information Studies; University College Dublin

This paper was presented to 'Shifting the Balance of Power', Democratic Left 1995 Autumn School on October 21st, 1995, at Trinity College, Dublin. Material in this file is not to be quoted from, nor is the file itself to be altered or reproduced (other than as necessary for html transfer), without permission of the author.
Comments on this paper are welcome, and can be sent to the author: Lee Komito, Dept of Library and Information Studies; University College Dublin; Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
©Lee Komito, 1995


I come here with two personae -- one as an anthropologist who has carried out research on urban politics in Ireland and the other as a lecturer in Information Studies. looking at the social and cultural impact of new information and communications technologies. It is the link between the two that forms the basis for this paper, focusing on the links between power, information, and knowledge.


I first came to Ireland in the late 1970's, to carry out research on clientelist politics, well described by Basil Chubb's famous phrase 'persecuting civil servants'. To what extent did people go to politicians in order to obtain state benefits, and why? One school of thought suggested that people were just being fooled by politicians. Politicians claimed an influence that they didn't have, in order to get votes at election time. The people were getting only what they were entitled to, and would have got the same response from civil servants and local authorities that the politicians got. The second school of thought was that politicians did not just make people believe they had power, they actually did have power. The system was actually corrupt, and that people went to politicians because politicians could bend the rules and get for people benefits that the people were not entitled to. What was the conclusion of my research? In good academic fashion, I concluded that both were right.

There is no doubt that some corruption does take place, particularly in the area of rezoning and planning permissions. However, there is little evidence that the amount of corruption is that much worse than what one finds in most Western democracies. It certainly doesn't compare with the level of corruption in African or Asian countries. By and large, the system does operate relatively honestly. Does that mean, then, that politicians are not able to get results that people could not get themselves? The answer is, yes they can. But not because they are necessarily bending the rules or abusing their position. They are able to get better results for a number of reasons:

  1. Civil servants and local authorities respond to a query from a politician more quickly than a query from a member of the public.
  2. Politicians understand the rules and procedures regarding entitlements and grants and are aware of benefits that the people may not themselves be aware of.
  3. Politicians are able to take the details of a person's problem and translate that into terms that are appropriate for a bureaucractic decision making.
  4. There has often been a desire, on the part of government, to avoid providing information to citizens, or providing only as much as absolutely necessary.

These are not the only reasons why political interventions are effective and why the tradition of going to politicians continues, but they do help provide some understanding of why politicians can actually be more effective than members of the public, even when they are, from a legal perspective, only doing the same thing that any member of the public could do.

The conclusion I came to was that politicians had better access to civil servants and local authority officials, better access to information, and more experience in manipulating that information for the benefit of their constituents. In short, information was the source of power. No surprise, perhaps, in these days of the Information Revolution and the Information Super Highway, but even fifteen years ago, a move away from actual services and benefits to the manipulation of information about services and benefits was a change of perspective.

If one is going to change the tradition of people going to politicians, then one has to change the way in which information is controlled and manipulated. It has to be easier for citizens to obtain information, there has to be greater knowledge of how decisions are made, and a commitment to producing the information in a way that makes sense to citizens. There have been improvements since I first carried out my research in the late 1970's and early 1980's, but this must be a continuing process. The amount and complexity of information both about citizens, and relevant to citizens, controlled by the state has increased rapidly in the last decade.

The Information Society

Now I come to my second hat - information studies. In this context, there are two areas that are relevant for this seminar -- changes in the basis of power, and the impact of new information and communications technology. The last decade or two has seen much discussion about changes in modern society. Whether one talks of the post-industrial society, the post-modern society, or the information society, the central core argument is that, with developments in science and technology, information and knowledge are emerging as central resources -- they are the basis of new economic power, and new wealth and power are going to derive from the added value of information and knowledge, rather than from traditional forms of economic wealth such as land, labour, or capital. Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave and Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society exemplify this view of the transformation now taking place.

While those arguing for a total transformation seem to be less credible now than a decade ago, there are few who would not argue that major changes are taking place. Land, labour, and capital may not be replaced by information, but information is certainly a source of power and influence, and one that is increasing in significance all the time. Even in traditional forms of economic activity, it is knowledge that enables added productivity. Farming the land is not enough; one has to know what fertilizer to use, what types of crops will do best in that particular environment, what will provide the best return at harvest, and so forth. Similarly, manufacturing remains important, but one needs to be able to change product lines quickly, in reponse to changing consumer demands. One needs to identify niche markets, and to be able arrange delivery of the cheapest materials, from wherever in the world, which still have to arrive at the right time. Even where labour, land, and capital remain important economic resources, the flexibility of control and co-ordination afforded by new information and communications technologies means that cross-national and even cross-continental economic flows are commonplace.

Knowledge as Power

In these discussions of the new world order, there are often two conflicting themes. One theme has been the way in which information and access to information will be used to empower individuals and communities. The advent of the personal computer was going to bring the power previously reserved for corporations down to the individual. Citizens would be more informed and would participate in politics directly. As employees, they would be relieved of tedious tasks, and able to exercise their judgement and intelligence. A contradictory theme suggested that new practices would not benefit individuals, either as workers or citizens. Technology would be used to control employees, and reduce, rather than increase, skills. Jobs would be automated out of existence. Phrases like 'downsizing', 'business process reengineering', 'outsourcing' and 'virtual organisations' are often code words for massive staff reductions, as technology reduces labour requirements. The state would be able to use sophisticated techniques to acquire information about citizens and monitor their activities. New technologies would, in the marketplace, be used for entertainment, which consumers would have to pay for, rather than for information, provided as a right.

The latter, pessimistic, view seems more credible these days than the former, but some of the elements of the former, more optimistic, view also remain with us. In all the debates about this new information society, it is often the case that aspiration is confused with reality. For instance, I can not let pass the phrase "knowledge is power" without some comment. In many of the efforts to provide electronic access to citizens in the United States -- community based networks, access to internet via libraries, Freenets -- there is sometimes the assumption that knowing something is the same as being able to then act effectively on that knowledge. Knowledge is not necessarily power. A knowledge of the social welfare system might help you claim an entitlement you desire, but it is just as likely to show you, clearly, that you do not qualify for a benefit because the rules exclude you. You may now better understand that structure of inequality that excludes large segments of the population. In that case, where does your knowledge get you? Hopefully, but not necessarily, where it gets you is motivated enough to try to change the structure of inequality that is now revealed to you. But this is by no means an inevitable consequence of your new found knowledge.

This confusion is understandable, as there has been an important change in our beliefs about knowledge. Previously, knowledge was something that existed 'out there', to be discovered and used. As science and technology have become central to our lives, knowledge has become part of the process of politics and social change. Knowledge is something that depends on who you are and what perspective you are taking. There is no 'out there' out there, anymore. In this context, knowledge is power simply because knowledge is part of the ever present story of conflict between individuals and groups, and is created, modified or distorted to suit the interests of the participants.

That does not mean that information is irrelevant; it can simply mean that it is part of a political and social process, rather than external data that is beyond politics. As indicated, there are two ways in which information can be linked with power. The first instance is finding out about something that you do deserve, but would not other have known about. This should be a trivial issue, since citizens should know their entitlements, and the state should make sure that entitlements are known and understood. But, as we all know, this is anything but trivial, and many politicians make electoral capital out of providing something that individuals deserved anyway. The new Information Age can make an important contribution here, since part of the problem with outreach programs is the simple cost of making information available. Convergence of technologies, improvements in communications technologies have reduced the cost of producing, distributing, and consuming information -- so it may now be possible to reach people without incurring large costs. Of course this begs the question as to whether the information is provided in a meaningful manner -- as anyone who has read EU regulations and proposals knows too well, reading something is not the same as understanding it. Knowledge, as opposed to simply information, has to be meaningful to the recipient, and it is the task of information providers to achieve that goal.

The other use to which information can be put is to motivate people. As is well known, people sometimes acquiesce to systems of inequality simply because they are not aware of that inequality. There is a discrepancy between morality and reality, and when that gap can be highlighted, people may use that gap as the basis for promoting change.

Information for the people?

There is no doubt that it is now possible to make information available, both cheaply and meaningfully, and I will give a recent example of that in a moment. The cost of providing that information is not prohibitive, and it can be done in such a way as to be meaningful to the consumer. There are two types of obstacles to providing information in this way. First, problems associated with producing the information, and, secondly, problems associated with obtaining it.

Take, for example, information about social welfare entitlements. How is information about the rules and procedures made available? Only via booklets that are quickly out of date or not available? Is it possible for this material to be available electronically, and do the individuals and organisations have the necessary expertise? Are there hardware and software compatability problems? I know that there are some suggestions that the Irish government should have an electronic presence but, as far as I know, there is still no electronic mail, much less file transfer capability, between the Irish government and the outside world. The possibility of data being available via disk was well publicized last summer as a major breakthrough, and so it was. But it also indicates how far things have yet to go.

Then, if the information is made available, can the citizen understand it? It was clear in my first study of Irish politics that politicians were sometimes effective because they knew the rules better than most citizens. But they were also effective because they knew how to interpret those rules and see the relevance of those rules to specific cases -- they were translating information into knowledge. This is a more difficult problem than simply making the information available, as a certain amount of work has to go into reformulating the information. A citizen does not want to know the rules for fifteen different assistance schemes, administered by five different state and semi-state agencies. He or she wants to know whether someone with a ten thousand pounds a year, trained as a typesetter, with two children and an aged mother, living in rented accommodation qualifies for any sort of assistance, regardless of who administers it.

The final obstacle is even greater. Are there really enough people with computers to get this information, or is this all simply futuristic waffle. Are the only ones who can get information electronically the wealthy who don't need it anyway? In the initial stages of computer penetration, use has been restricted to those in white-collar jobs whose offices were computerised, and even very few of those used computers at home. Recently though, domestic use has increased, with home PC ownership in the US jumping almost 5% in 1993, from 26.6% to 31%. This was the largest annual increase since analysts began tracking the market niche (Wall Street Journal, 26 Aug 93, and Business Week, 22 Nov 93). And an increasing number of those with home computer, also have the modems necessary to connect to electronic information sources. A recent survey found that almost 6 million individuals in the US had internet access in 1994.

This is not to say that wealth is not a factor. Households with incomes of $50,000 or more are five times more likely to own a PC and 10 times more likely to have access to on-line services. In a survey of college graduates with children, 49% had PCs, compared to 17% of homes in which the parents had only high school diplomas. (PC World, Sep 94). Currently, nearly three quarters of those who have access to internet or other on-line services have an income of over $35,000 (£22,000) a year, and over fifty percent have incomes between $35,000 and $75,000 (£47,000) per year. However, without trying to appear over-optimistic, I am more impressed by the fact that one quarter of people with access to electronic information earn less than $35,000 per year.

Of course on-line computer usage rates are greater in the US than in Ireland, for a multitude of reasons. Not only are computers and modems more expensive in Ireland, but, as we well know, telephone charges are also higher. However, there has been growth, even in Ireland, of the number of people and organisations with electronic access; it is notable that RTE has suddenly discovered both electronic mail and the World Wide Web. The Late Late Show has an electronic mail address, though whether Gay Byrne gets much mail is another question. However, the BBC was responsible for great strides in computer awareness a decade ago, and may be achieving much the same for electronic mail and World Wide Web now; perhaps RTE will achieve the same in Ireland. Even in Ireland, computers are becoming a consumer item, only marginally more expensive than video recorders, and the growth of internet service providers, such as IEUNET, Ireland on Line, Internet Eireann, and so forth is rapid.

World Wide Web

When people talk about 'surfing the net', it is usually the World Wide Web that people are talking about. There are a great many advantages, and some disadvantages, to the Web, but in the context of this presentation, there are two things that are really important about the World Wide Web. Firstly, it is both simple and inexpensive for individuals, groups, and governments, to make information available to anyone in the world via the Web. Secondly, Web browsers (the software necessary to view and retrieve information) are extraordinarily easy to use, regardless of your computer expertise. While there has been an impressive amount of information freely available on the internet for years, it previously took special expertise to make the material available, and even more expertise to figure out how to get it. The World Wide Web makes this information easily available to anyone, regardless of how little, if anything, they know about computers. In this context, let me provide an interesting example of how information could be made available to people at a low cost.

The Office of the Ombudsman

One instance of the ease and effectiveness of making government information available is the recent report from the Office of the Ombudsman -- an office whose very existence is linked with a policy of making government accountable to citizens through the provision of information. The Annual Report of the Ombudsman is printed and made available, for a charge of £5, to any individual who is interested. This year, it was suggested that the Report might also be made available via the World Wide Web. Since there was no government site available, the Department of Library and Information Studies at University College Dublin made the Report available, as a demonstration of the importance of public access to government information. With very little effort, the Report was made available, on line, at the same time as it was officially announced. Unlike the printed version, it was available for free, to anyone in the world who wanted it. There were no production or publishing costs, nor postage costs. The Report, and its attendant statistics, could be downloaded and searched, analysed or reproduced, as desired. As an interesting sidelight on the impact of telecommunications, although the information resided on a computer in University College Dublin, a lot of the last minute work was done from Manchester, where I was lecturing at the time. Indeed, I had to excuse myself from a department meeting to go back to my computer at 11:00, on the day of the press release, to activate the electronic link to the report.

One criticism of such publishing is that it may be free, but only a few have access to computers, so who reads it? Reliable WWW statistics are difficult to obtain, but the available statistics are interesting, none the less. The existence of the WWW page was announced at the same time as the press conference - 11:00 on June 15th. The first look was an hour later, and at least four people looked at the information that day. The next day, 'hits' included someone from the Irish Times, and, the day after that, a journalist specialising in Information Technology. A few days later, on June 19th, a small piece appeared in the Irish Times 'Computimes' section. About 30 people retrieved the information that day, and nearly 200 in the first week. It is almost impossible to gauge how many people have actually looked at the material, since there are many debates about the relationship between the number of 'hits' (times a file has been requested from a computer somewhere else) and number of readers. The report was broken down into separate chapters, a table of contents, and an ASCII version of the report. There were a total of twelve files. From the release of the report, until October 10th (just over sixteen weeks, or slightly less than four months), there were 1000 'hits' (file retrievals), from over 225 unique internet addresses. The real number of people who looked at the information is somewhere in between, since the same internet address can be used by multiple users, and sometimes a file is simply stored at one location, to be retrieved by numerous local users. Thus, any numbers given are indicative, at best. Still, they provide some interesting insights. The breakdown of files retrieved were as follows:

Total Retrievals of Annual Report
Hits Chapter Titles
490 Introductory Page
212 Table of Contents
42 Foreword
41 Introduction
35 Chapter 1, The Year’s Work
45 Chapter 2, Selected Cases
39 Chapter 3, General Issues Arising from Specific Complaints
17 Chapter 4, Investigations
29 Chapter 5, Cases of General Interest
23 Statistics
27 ASCII version of Report

There were 190 'hits' in the first week and since then the number as varied from as little as 21 hits in a week to as many as 123 per week. There is no sign of diminishing, as in last week for which I have statistics, there were 51 'hits' (click here for a graph of weekly hits).

Not much? Perhaps not, but consider a few points. First, this was on the basis of almost no publicity - a short mention in a press release, a few lines in the Irish Times. Second, it compares reasonably well with the 500 copies of the 'hard copy' versions of the Annual Report that have been purchased. Third, this information was distributed at virtually no cost, and was instantly available for analysis by the consumer. All in all, it might be argued that an impressive number of people were interested in an Annual Report from a civil service department that employs less than forty people!

It is also interesting to consider who retrieved these files. The overwhelming majority of viewers came from Irish sites, but there were numerous retrievals from the United States, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Poland, Chile, and perhaps other countries as well (it is not always clear what country or organisation is represented). Some interesting addresses of machines which looked at the information suggest that individuals in both Vermont and Iowa state governments were interested, as well as people in various US Federal government agencies, plus the Ombudsman's office in British Columbia (e.g.,,,,, and these are just the ones whose names suggest what organisation was interested in the data. It suggests that various government departments in Canada and the United States were interested to get the information, and have, perhaps used it in their own work. How much more benefit could there have been if the information was more easily available, or better publicised?


I would not argue that making the Annual Report of the Office of the Ombudsman available on the Web is earth shattering. However, it is an example of how information can be made available, at very little cost to either the producer or the consumer. The only limitations are the willingness on the part of information providers to make the material available, and the ability of consumers to have access to the necessary technology.

The willingness is certainly present on the part of commercial organisations. Throughout the world, including Ireland, companies are falling over each other to get electronic mail access and to establish a presence on the World Wide Web. The question is whether governments will follow suit and also start providing information. Unfortunately, it is also a question of whether that information will be provided as a public service, or whether it will be seen as another way to make government departments pay their own way by charging for the information. Who owns state information is an important issue which is only now being debated.

The other limitation is the ability of consumers to access the information. Although computers are fast becoming a consumer item not much more expensive than a very good video recorder, it is not likely that everyone will have computers in their home within the next decade. However, it isn't necessary for that to take place. Easier access to computers in public venues such as libraries, community information centres, and schools would improve matters significantly. Public libraries in the United States and the United Kingdom are arguing that they are community information providers, and should be able to provide electronic information to their community, and a number of librarians in Ireland believe the same, and are trying, with their limited funds, to make sure that information remains in the public rather than the private or commercial domains (e.g., Dublin City library).

Providing more information to citizens is not, as I have already argued, any guarantee of either better services or more democratic participation in the state. At the very least, however, a lack of such information is certain to make such improvements impossible. The provision of such resources is not even particularly expensive. At the production end, establishing a secure Web site for government information is a relatively trivial matter. There are already efforts being made to standarize data formats within the Civil Service; providing that data to the public is the next logical step. Even more beneficial would be improved data exchange procedures; it is feasible that forms could be filled out and requests submitted electronically. On the consumer end, high speed links already exist among third level institutions, both Universities and RTCs, all over Ireland. Providing public information points here, and adding low speed links to libraries and community information centres, and perhaps secondary schools as well, could be done with little extra expenditure. Many libraries and secondary schools are doing their best to provide such resources out of their own budgets; state assistance could make a major difference. All these suggestions would do much to make information in Ireland a public resource for all, rather than private resource for the wealthy and privileged.

This paper was presented to 'Shifting the Balance of Power', Democratic Left 1995 Autumn School on October 21st, 1995, at Trinity College, Dublin. Material in this file is not to be quoted from, nor is the file itself to be altered or reproduced (other than as necessary for html transfer), without permission of the author.
Comments on this paper are welcome, and can be sent to the author: Lee Komito, Dept of Library and Information Studies; University College Dublin; Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
©Lee Komito, 1995
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