Amol Rajan: Decline and fall of that great craft, the Knowledge

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The Independent Online

It used to be that if you wanted to get a black cab driver in London talking, you hit the subjects beloved of talk radio: crime, immigration, welfare, Europe, that sort of thing. Nowadays there is a much quicker route: Addison Lee. Mention this rival and your man up front will splutter for all England about that cab company's tyrannical influence.

Earlier this week, I was in a black taxi and mentioned the dreaded rival. The driver, Ray, burst into a torrent of abuse, and reached fever pitch with this assertion: "Them ******** ain't even done the Knowledge!". Two years and four months Ray had laboured to commit London's streets to memory all those years ago. Now Jimmy Nobody from Nigeria just uses a bleeding sat-nav. I didn't have the guts to say what I was thinking, which is that for Jimmy Nobody the Knowledge would be a waste of time, and the customer couldn't give a hoot anyway.

The Knowledge is a working-class institution. Many thousands of men used it to earn salaries throughout their working lives, by which they paid their taxes and fed their families. But the decline in use of the Knowledge, when instant sat-nav can direct any driver from A to B, is a potent metaphor for one of the most important changes to modern Western societies. It's an obsession of this column. I call it The Great Hollowing.

Poor people in the West are confronting nothing less than an existential crisis, brought on by globalisation and rapid technological advance. Both are stealing jobs; the former by supplying cheaper manpower in the East; the latter by substituting (cheap) machinery for (an expensive) labour force.

In the process, certain types of craftsmanship will be lost. Following Immanuel Kant, the conservative imagination distinguishes between pure and practical reason. The former, being based on abstract theory, is a tissue of illusions. The latter, being rooted in experience, contains wisdom and truth.

Therefore any attack on craftsmanship, which is a depository of practical reason, is to be resisted.

Unfortunately for Ray and his ilk, this trend cannot be resisted. It is both irreversible and a calamity for the affected. Largely unrecognised by the political class, globalisation and technology are robbing the poor of an essential component of meaningful life: paid employment.

Just as the Knowledge will decay and disappear, so other institutions and crafts beloved of the Western poor will die, drowned victims of the remorseless tide that is The Great Hollowing.