Ghost in the Machine: Looking Glass Into the Knowledge Class, Part 1

I propose the Internet is critical to the future of marketing because it provides a looking glass into the knowledge class of postindustrial societies. The metaphor of the Internet as looking glass means simply the Internet enables certain types of communication and those types of communication reflect the values, ideals, and issues of the people who made it. In other words, you can see in the machine the reflections of its makers. They are collectively the ghost in the machine. And because the machine’s makers also use it themselves, the Internet is a way not only to see the previously invisible but to reach the previously unreachable.

Many among you may greet such a grand vision with weary skepticism. Don’t worry. No one’s going to be bamboozled by more Digital Age flim-flam.

Others will say we are all quite busy already, trying to integrate interactive communications into traditional disciplines and into the multidisciplinary solutions we proffer to our clients. The agency plate may be too full to take on a full-blown sociohistorical phenomenon, thank you very much.

What’s more, the back-to-basics sentiment that’s rampant among management today only wants to integrate the new into the already proven. Clients seem to agree. Among Ad Week‘s Top 10 interactive agencies in 2000, 8 were digital boutiques. They dropped to 3 in 2001, while full-service agencies grew from 2 to 7 of the top 10.

As Marshall McLuhan said, “The established order tries to force the new media to do the work of the old.” That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing, but it’s not the only thing. Our business needs a heartbeat, one that pulls and pushes just like the systole diastole pulsing of the real thing. Of course, we must fit interactive communications into past practices, but we must also stand up to the novel situations our times present.

My proposal, that the knowledge class of the postindustrial societies is making itself visible and addressable for the first time in its history in this medium, may not be the only big thing about the online world but it is surely one big thing. Put another way, understanding how the knowledge society organized this communications space and how it wants to communicate there could make a big difference to the actual fortunes of our clients and agencies.

Who or What Is the Knowledge Class?

You don’t need a Marxist, just a historian, to understand classes. They are simply broad socioeconomic strata that emerge at specific eras, in association with different modes of work. For example, when America’s earliest factories of the 1830s became mechanized and industrialized after the Civil War, a blue-collar working class emerged by the 1880s. The professional class of doctors, lawyers, and engineers emerged around the turn of the century, with the great wave of university building intended to organize the production of useful knowledge. The managerial class of the business world appeared in the 1920s, after the invention, spread, and triumph of the corporate form of business organization

The knowledge class is another of these emergences. The preeminent business thinker, Peter Drucker, discerned the phenomenon in the late 1970s. It’s been a recurring theme of his for decades. For Drucker, this knowledge stratum is the leading group of postindustrial society. Not the ruling class, but the stratum responsible for our most influential ideals, interests, and issues.

Who belongs? Many. Everyone who can put initials after their names, such as BA, RN, CPA, MBA, MFA, and so on. All the analysts, researchers, engineers, technologists, managers, and professionals, all the wordsmiths and number crunchers in all sectors — business, healthcare, engineering, media, government. They all belong. In early 21st-century America, it’s a broad swath.

It’s a new stratum, but it took decades to develop. Three major trends converged. The first was the rise of the service sector in postindustrial economies. The earliest traces occurred in the 1930s and have grown ever since. The second trend was the democratization of higher education, which kicked off with the G.I. bill for World War II veterans. The third trend was diffusion of computing power in business. In the 1970s, it was concentrated in mainframes; today, it’s on every desktop. These three trends converged in all industries and all sectors. An increasing number of all jobs became information intensive. They require some type of knowledge worker.

Drucker believed this stratum’s ideals, interests, and issues shape our age, but he was unable to identify them. The big deal online marketers are missing is the Internet is making this stratum visible. People from this stratum are the ones building the Internet, and it shows their goals and interests.

Historian Howard Reingold documented one dominant aim across the entire history of computing, including the PC and the Internet: making human intelligence even more powerful by augmenting it with machine intelligence. Hence, his title “Tools for Thought.” Another historian, Manuel Castells, in the first volume of “The Rise of Network Society,” shows that the Internet’s basic engineering reflects how the scientific community generates and improves knowledge.

Designed by and for the smart, the Internet appears to be a neutral space, but its three organizing principles — egalitarianism, elitism, and efficiency — are organized in such a way that the smart get even smarter.

Adapted from Len’s keynote at the Jupiter/IAB 2002 Advertising Forum.

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