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"Knowledge and Diminishing Returns"

     Recently I came across the idea that knowledge was the only
instrument of production that was not subject to diminishing
returns.  The concept of diminishing returns states that there
comes a point where adding more of a given element to a process
does not increase the output.  More time, more effort, more
money, more material -- in every case a point can be reached
where one is overdoing it, and additional production is not the
     But what about knowledge?  Cannot additional knowledge also
lead to diminishing returns?  Aren't we, as a matter of fact, at
that point now?
     It is clear that "knowledge" is not quite the same thing as
"information."  We already have a glut of that and diminishing
returns have already resulted.  Almost everyone reports the
sensation of being "lost," when they first begin to explore the
Internet, for example.  There is too much information.  Junk
information gets in the way of any real search.  The government
already has more information than it can figure out what to do
with.  Congresspersons end up passing laws they haven't even
read, let alone understood.  Law enforcement people are subject
to regulation they can't possibly read, let alone follow. 
Experts, called lawyers, have to be hired to decipher, or
interpret, or misinterpret in prejudiced fashion, the fine points
of contracts that are in effect and laws that are "on the books."
     Sometimes lately I admit to feeling like Goethe's FAUST, in
Scene One.  He reached the Point of Diminishing Returns, in
knowledge, and knew it and said so.  That set him up for his
famous pact with the Devil.  One can know too much, after all.  A
species, for sure, can know too much -- about the production of
radioactive blast, e.g., or the manipulation of genetic material. 
We can know more than what's good for us.  Old myths tell it --
     Lately I find myself responding to additional, or repeated,
bits of information with the awareness, "No, I already know about
that," or "I already understand that."  So I am impervious to
most advertising [those cars that enable me to break all safety
laws in all fifty states, and that headache medicine which will
relieve the pain caused by this very ad], most "news" [Monica,
fundamentalist lawmakers, bombings and collateral damage,
increased military spending], and most of what is nowadays called
"art" [grunge, lingerie ads, booming boomboxes].  It is a plain
case of diminishing returns, because I already know and
understand too much.
     Knowledge can lead to wisdom, and then to a love of wisdom,
which used to be called "philosophy."  But that feels like an
endeavor for the elderly, rather than for a group of specialized
academicians.  The gaining of wisdom can become an exercise in
preparing oneself for passing on out of here gracefully,
transcending ego, arriving at the point where one is not
primarily interested in "returns."  The task becomes getting rid,
and getting clear.  Knowledge can help.
     Additional returns at this stage become inappropriate.  What
is the purpose of all this effort to amass more?  Why pile up
more stuff?  To give it away?  To see it confiscated?  In this
late last stage concern about returns becomes obscene, greedy and
foolish, ego-grabbing instead of ego-releasing.
     "Diminishing returns" becomes a shabby thing to care about,
a silly way of putting the question.  "What do I get out of it?" 
becomes finally inappropriate.  "Diminishing returns" comes from
economics, that area of concern which matters least in those last
     My friend, Tom, now deceased, exemplified for me how
"diminishing returns" in the area of knowledge can become a sad
thing.  I wrote of him in "Report to Base," a story in VERMIN:
     Tom studied hard in the last two decades of his life,
analyzed well the data he found, and prepared a list of eighteen
problems confronting humanity, any one of which spelled doom, or
something very like it, for the species as a whole.  Polluted
water, exhausted soil, nuclear explosions or leaks, and more, and
his eighteenth point was, "Disinclination to seek and implement
solutions to any, let alone all, of the previous seventeen
threats to human survival."  
     His marvelously enhanced knowledge turned into despair.  It
became "diminishing returns," in the area of knowledge, with a
vengeance.  A misanthropic hatefulness developed in him, which
then turned into nastiness toward those of us who still continue
to seek solutions, who persist in protesting foolishness and
mendacity.  Despair, I learned, becomes part of the problem.  It
becomes part of what Tom himself spotted in his eighteenth threat
to humanity.
     So, where are we?  Additional knowledge can help put ego in
perspective and prepare us for confronting mortality.  But when
ego refuses to let go, additional knowledge can make us bitter,
rather than enlightened.  The difference is hidden inside us
somewhere.  Those people who prate glibly about how "character
counts" don't know how right they are.

* * *
Copyright © 1999 Harry Willson

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