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All work is "knowledge work"

Knowledge work. This new buzzword, along with "knowledge worker" and the "knowledge economy", has been making the rounds in the knowledge management, productivity, and corporate communication spheres over the past few years.

The term refers to jobs where the "main capital is knowledge" and people "think for a living". Examples of "knowledge workers" include programmers, physicians, scientists, designers, academics, and engineers. Essentially, highly paid professions that require some sort of advanced education.

Until referencing it in my post Why You Hate Slack, I'd never really thought deeply about the term. But after doing some research, I want to explain why I think the term "knowledge work" is meaningless, classist, doublespeak that you should probably stop saying.

"Knowledge work" is meaningless.

I want to begin by disproving the definition of the term itself. The claim that there are certain jobs where workers "think for a living" is laughably arrogant and fundamentally ignorant.

A designer isn't paid to think; they're paid to draw logos. A programmer isn't paid to think; they're paid to build apps. An academic isn't paid to think; they're paid to publish papers.

Because knowledge isn't concrete. It's conceptual. It's ephemeral. It can live in our personal, imagined realities, but to exist and take shape in our collective, shared reality, it requires manifestation through a medium.

We're not even praised for thinking. We might say, "Happy birthday" to someone and they'll respond with, "Thanks for thinking of me". But even then, we spoke. We converted our thoughts into vibrations in the air. We manifested part of our imagined reality into our shared reality. We made something.

There is no way to capture, cultivate, and curate knowledge without a form of communication. Articles, books, videos - these tangible artifacts are mediums we use to move knowledge across our society.

Our thoughts aren't tangible. They aren't useful to anyone but ourselves. So, to believe they are worth anything in the marketplace is arrogance.

Accepting this allows us to step back and realize something about work. Regardless of status and salary, education and enterprise, all work is a production process; the process of realizing thought; the process of making the conceptual concrete.

The work of an academic is fundamentally no different than the work of a factory laborer. Whether performing research you'll never read or attaching a keyboard to the laptop you use every day; both work to produce artifacts that are manifestations of knowledge.

There are obvious differences in how much variability, ownership, and control there is in the work. There are differences over pressures of time, safety, and stability at work. And there are stark differences in how our society views these two professions and the individuals that perform this work. But, one thing is certain and clear:

No one is paid to think. We're paid to produce.

"Knowledge work" is classist.

There is a a classist corollary in the concept of "knowledge work": the notion that low paying and "unskilled" jobs don't require knowledge.

Obviously, this isn't true. We can't work without knowledge.

Each job is a unique combination of theoretical, practical, and institutional knowledge. Performing your position is knowing how to do it in theory, in practice, and in context of the people and processes in your workplace.

Professional progress is always possible because the body of knowledge of any field is infinite. Learning is always part of the job, and there's always something new to learn. This is why both the academic and the factory worker can always be doing their jobs better.

It's also why neither can just do the other's job.

However, us "knowledge workers" have a tendency to lose this humility. We become myopic; self-absorbed; egotistical; caught up in our own careers. We lose the perspective - the respect - for knowledge itself and those who pursue any part of it.

We start to see the work of a waiter, landscaper, or hairdresser as plain, simple, easy - because we arrogantly believe we know what those jobs entail. But unless we've done it, we don't know.

The fog that clouds true understanding can only be lifted by doing the work. However, where jobs that provide essential functions to society are negatively affected by this fog, those in the upper class benefit from its obfuscation.

By using buzzwords and jargon, we make jobs in the "knowledge economy" like "management consultant" feel more important and less accessible than they are. Which - whether with malicious intent or not - benefits those in these roles.

Because if something feels less accessible, it feels more scarce; and if it feels more scarce, it feels more valuable; and if it feels more valuable, it is more valueable.

Our caste-like career structure is due to us conflating someone's salary with the value of the knowledge they possess. To take this so far as to label only some work as "knowledge work" - to say only some work requires knowledge - is hubris.

All work requires knowledge.

The value of knowledge is contextual; it changes; it's perceived; it's an illusion; it's irrelevant until it's vital. We never know when something we know will become useful. And we don't know what we don't know.

That's why we must stay humble. We must stay curious. We must always know that there's something we don't; and that everyone has something to teach us.

"Knowledge work" is doublespeak.

In the 1930s, Upton Sinclair, the prolific political activist and muckraker, coined the terms "white-collar" and "blue-collar". He was making a metaphor between uniform material and the profound economic differences of the working class during the late-industrial period.

He probably had no idea that, nearly a 100 years later, we would be using terms like "pink-collar", "black-collar", and "red-collar" in order to categorize every job in the economy into a distinct, collar-coded hierarchy. The color denoted for "knowledge workers"? Gold.

"Knowledge work", "gold-collar", "professional labor" - all of these words are political doublespeak. They are euphemisms - attempts to justify the dramatic inequality and inconsistency between corporate value and social value. Their acceptance masks the fact that we are part of a broken system.

My annual income is ~$100,000 a year. My fiancé's annual income is ~$25,000 a year. I build apps. She bakes bread. My products convenience people; her products feed people.

Well, you're a knowledge worker. You get paid more because you think for a living; your work requires knowledge; your work is creative; your work is just more valuable.

I hope that you can now smell the bullshit. This line of thinking is just plain wrong. It's a story we tell ourselves in order to believe there is a sense of reason - of justice - behind the astronomically inflated valuations of work in industries like tech and finance.

If the scale was just, we wouldn't have to spend so much time justifying it.

Words matter.

I don't believe that people are using the term "knowledge work" maliciously. Heck, I just used this term a few weeks ago in a blog post.

As a species, we want to find patterns and generalizable principles. We want to be pithy and profound.

But recklessly using feckless terms like "knowledge work" can get us into trouble. So, in most situations, it's best to be specific. If you're referencing the work of engineers and financial analysts - just say that.

Our society is built on a foundation of shared beliefs. Those beliefs are built through communication; and when we communicate, we must try our best to say what we mean and mean what we say.

Words have power. It's our responsibility to understand how using them upholds or reframes the collective consciousness our society operates in.

What do you think?

I'd love to hear what you think about the term "knowledge work" and how the words we use to communicate shape our society. Let me know your thoughts on Twitter!

Until next time.

Drew Lyton
Drew Lyton
Monday, October 17, 2022

I'm a software engineer, ex-founder and writer who cares deeply about creating a better relationship between technology and society. I'm currently writing a book about early stage entrepreneurship.


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