Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Dezember 2005
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Knowledge and the Change of Society Today

Alfred Gusenbauer (Vienna)


At the beginning of Social Democracy in the 19th century, the leading party members knew that knowledge played a most important role not only for the common development of a society, but also for the development within and for the party.

That view has not changed to the present day. On the contrary, within a society, which is moving more and more in the direction of service and information, knowledge becomes an essential strategic resource, both for the development of individuals and also for the success and prosperity of a society.

Within the Europe of the European Union in the 21 st century, conditions have changed from those of the 19 th century. Most people find that it is no longer necessary to struggle for survival, as a social state now exists with programs to help those who cannot help themselves. Nevertheless, inequality, injustice, and fear have not disappeared.

It is widely known that the speed at which society is developing causes pressures and changes within the labor market, produces insecurity and requires political answers. As just one example of the dramatic changes that are occurring, let me cite the major change of Austria from an agrarian to an industrial society:

At the beginning of the 20 th century approximately 90% of the Austrian population earned their living from agriculture. Today that number is only 1,7% of the population. A fundamental transformation process took place, one that later in the 20 th century also occurred within industry.

In principal there exist enough goods for all, but these goods are not distributed equally. On the global level as well as in Europe, the struggle over more equitable distribution still continues. Clearly the gap between the exceedingly wealthy (witness the growth of the number of billionaires in the world) and the extremely poor is growing steadily, as the impoverished and socially weak continue to be disadvantaged by their societies. This is the result of a form of neo-liberal politics, which has had no success anywhere and, worse, is increasingly leading to outbreaks of violence by those driven to desperation, as recently witnessed in France and Britain. Thus the matter of a just and equitable society remains the main social question of the 21 st century.

In this context, it becomes the task of the European Union to provide an alternative plan of development, one that is fairer to all and which eliminates poverty not only within the European Union, but also in those neighboring countries, which shall be their friends.

A crucial element of such a politics is to provide people with the best possible education, so that they can gain the empowerment of knowledge. Fundamental to achieving this goal are such basics as reading and the interpretation of signs, images, texts and numbers, all designed to enable people to function in the new information society. Lacking these skills and abilities, people not only have no possibility of functioning in the new conditions, but also have no access to tradition. The availability of such cultural skills has to be in the center of every policy of education, and instruction has to begin very early.

Traditionally knowledge production has always been considered a privilege reserved exclusively for the elite and the wealthy until the advent of modernity at the beginning of the 20 th century. Today the most important factor of knowledge production is the "Light of the public," as Immanuel Kant termed it.

Knowledge production is not the same as agriculture or industrial production. Knowledge production requires specific forms to make innovations possible both in the core usage of knowledge and in the development of new knowledge.

Knowledge production comprises very different fields: the development of knowledge (innovation), the storage and tradition of knowledge (reproduction), and the dissemination of knowledge (education). These fields, of course, are all interrelated and interactive, and within the area of interaction the public plays a major role in the spread and exchange of information. Without the participation of the public, knowledge fails to accomplish its purpose and its usefulness becomes limited.

Today the frames and conditions of knowledge production have changed totally. The production and reproduction of knowledge are no longer confined within the borders of a small or narrow field. Rather they have become the driving force of production in Europe and the world. The number of people engaged in studying, teaching and disseminating knowledge is no longer limited to a favored few. Knowledge production is now a process in which the masses can and do participate.

Within this process, politics often uses the keyword Research and Development, but in reality this is simply an old political program involving the distribution of subsidies refurbished in terms of a new rhetoric. The result of such a politics does not lead to any new productivity, but paradoxically, especially in our time, leads to high unemployment among academics, because it does take into account the new circumstances.

Such a politics of serving the interests of old social structures does not clarify how it will be possible to create the conditions for life in a new way in the countryside or in urban areas. The destruction of the infrastructure in the countryside, for example, stands in opposition to the contemporary knowledge that communication and the public are the main frames and factors for production and distribution as well as for productivity.

But it is also not enough to get the right focus in education, to know the best possibilities of transformation, and to make the right decisions in the usage of knowledge - for example, technology. It is very important to recognize that the processes in society have to lead to a common benefit. If those processes are restricted in their distribution, then they fail in their purpose and are not useful. It is evident that we need another political direction not only to avoid violence, as in France and Britain, but also to organize society in a more productive way, so that all citizens can live together harmoniously and constructively. The main point is how to motivate human beings to become engaged, involved, in the processes of society. The fear of restriction, of not being helped to join the society as full and equal members not only causes great problems in the personal life of human beings, but also affects the whole system of society negatively.

In order to organize society in the most productive way, it is necessary for all citizens to become politically engaged. In order to accomplish this desired goal, a political program is needed that stresses the knowledge of possibilities and the motivation of the masses within a society.

In that sense, a main point in the 21 st century will be to become informed about the possibilities and opportunities of knowledge production. To achieve that goal, the contributions of science and research are fundamental. Then, to complete the cycle, this knowledge must be disseminated by those people who play a key role in production and distribution.

A conference such as the present one, in which scientists, scholars, artists, journalists and politicians from over 80 countries are participating, has an excellent possibility of developing new ideas for social improvement, because such a conference does not deal only with isolated facts, but also is focused on investigating the new importance of knowledge and knowledge production for the processes in contemporary societies. In that sense I extend to all of the participants my best wishes for a successful conference.

© Alfred Gusenbauer (Vienna)

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TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  16 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Alfred Gusenbauer (Vienna): Knowledge and the Change of Society Today. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005.

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