I don’t see a knowledge economy. I see a knowledge industry.

The term “knowledge economy” gets thrown around a lot. When you combine the term with other terms such as “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning”, you can be left with the impression that unless you have an engineering degree or know how to code, then you will be left to wonder the streets of dystopia, meandering through blithe in search of value or meaning. The knowledge economy, based on how it is presented, sounds like a place carved out for the information elite. I don’t take the dreaded scenario seriously because the knowledge economy does not exist. This acknowledgment is important because embracing this position provides a platform for creating social policy that effectively distributes knowledge as what it is: a capital input.

The United States has gone from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy to a services economy. The labels imply that for some type of output, crops, that there are rules for the extraction, packaging, and distribution of capital necessary for producing an end product, food, and for packaging and distributing to its final destination, the end-user. Once it is consumed, it is either gone immediately or depreciating to zero value over some period of time. There is some range of exclusivity involved in its consumption. We cannot say that for knowledge.

Knowledge results from a combination of information and experience. It is about “knowing how” to do something. It is an awareness of a process behind creating some result. While the “know how” could be protected by the laws of intellectual property, acquiring information, “the noise” and human experience garnered from deciphering through the noise to find a valuable nugget of information, cannot be constrained. The rules of economy are designed to bring society closer to some certainty over how resources will be extracted and distributed, but the open environment around knowledge makes strict rules useless.

Public policy can craft rules that make packaged knowledge exclusive to the creator and owner i.e, copyrights for artistic work or patents protecting applied scientific processes, but there are different paths to creating knowledge resulting sometimes in creating similar but not same packages. Knowledge protection is limited.

For this reason, knowledge can be built upon, expand. There is really no final consumption. Knowledge is reused, modified, improved over time. Rules of economics are not as applicable as they were in agrarian or industrial society.

Knowledge is more input than it is final product. This is why, to me, the term “knowledge economy” is weak. Knowledge has been an input during each of America’s economic phases. America’s increased reliance on information and communications technology over the past fifty years doesn’t mean that “knowledge” gets to claim its own economy.

Markets can be made for knowledge. A consultant takes her insights, advice, and publications into the knowledge market where she hopes she receives an offer that compensates her for the time spent creating the knowledge product and/or presenting the knowledge product.

As for the consumer of the knowledge product, he is taking a gamble that any action plan, output or final product generated by the knowledge creates positive value or profit. The more information the consultant and the purchaser have on the forecasted value of returns on the knowledge, the more accurate the market price for the knowledge.

If anything, we may be in a “learning economy” where consumers are also becoming producers either of their own content or more durable products. The knowledge industry is one of its platforms where knowledge as input is bought and sold.