The Evolution of Knowledge Processing and the Sustainability Conundrum

Stéphane Grumbach, Sander Van Der Leeuw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Non-Technical Summary Our time seems to be trapped in a paradox. One one hand, the capacity to master information has tremendously increased, but on the other hand the capacity to use the knowledge humanity produces seems at stake. There is a gap between our capacity to know and our capacity to act. We attempt to better understand that situation by considering the evolution of knowledge processing along human history, in particular the relation between the development of information technologies and the complexity of societies, the balance between the known and the unknown, and the current emergence of autonomous machines allowing intelligent processes. Technical Summary Information processing capacities developed historically in conjunction with the complexity of human societies. Positive feedback loops contributed to the co-evolution of knowledge, social organization, environmental transformation and information technologies. Very powerful loops now drive the rapid emergence of global digital platforms, disrupting legacy organizations and economic equilibria. The simultaneous emergence of the awareness of the sustainability conundrum and the digital revolution is striking. Both are extremely disruptive and contribute to a surge in complexity, but how do they relate to each other? Paradoxically, as the capacity to master information increases, the capacity to use the knowledge humanity produces seems to lag. The objective of this paper is to analyse the current divergence between knowledge and action, from the angle of the co-evolution of information processing and societal transformation. We show how the interplay between perception and action, between the known and the unknown, between information processing and ontological uncertainty, has evolved towards a sense of control, a hubris, which abolishes the unknown and hinders action. A possible outcome of this interplay might lead to a society controlled to stay in its safe operating space, involving a strong delegation of information processing to autonomous machines, as well as extensive forms of biopolitics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalGlobal Sustainability
StateAccepted/In press - 2021


  • Acceleration
  • Biopolitics
  • Complexity
  • Digitization
  • Feedback
  • Information processing
  • Knowledge
  • Social-Ecological Systems
  • Technology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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