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    Why Money Can’t Buy You Knowledge — Except in China

    Pay-for-knowledge platforms are charging anxious middle-class consumers for formulaic answers to life’s most complex questions.

    Back in March, online talk show host Luo Zhenyu announced the end of his weekly series, “Luoji Siwei” — a pun on his name and the Chinese phrase for “logical thinking.” Abandoning all other video and audio platforms, he declared that in the future all his content would be exclusive to his own app, Dedao.

    Fast-forward to last month, and I found my social media feed flooded with reposts of an article provocatively titled “Luo Zhenyu’s Scam.” The author, a social media writer by the pseudonym Shi Yi, posited that pay-for-knowledge schemes, like the one Luo peddles, make money from selling the mere illusion of knowledge, stroking the vanity of customers who dislike reading but enjoy being thought of as “well-read.”

    There is no evidence to suggest that Luo is “scamming” people in the legal sense. He likely got a taste of the business potential of online broadcasting while collaborating with Ximalaya FM, an online podcast and audio media platform. He probably realized that while videos could only be monetized through broadcast rights and advertising, sealing off his own premium content allowed him to sell his ideas for more cash.

    Yet the abovementioned article struck a chord with many Chinese. These days, many members of China’s urban middle class are currently suffering from so-called knowledge anxiety. In an era that has seen the availability of information skyrocket, we are constantly left feeling as though we know less than the people around us.

    This mindset has spawned a flourishing pay-for-knowledge industry. The premise is simple enough: You pay me a fee, and in exchange, I impart some of my knowledge unto you. Don’t want to spend time studying? I’ll do the readings for you. Want to pick up a skill quickly? I’ll spoon-feed it to you. That’s the ethos of platforms like Zhihu and Dedao, the Quora-like Chinese pay-for-knowledge schemes that currently count over 50 million paying customers between them.

    The vast majority of people either don’t enjoy reading books, or don’t have the time to do so. Instead, many choose to follow advocates of pay-for-knowledge schemes like Luo. Convincing users to foot the bill is Luo’s real talent: Constantly catering to the needs of their user bases, people like him skillfully repackage complex topics like philosophy, psychology, robotics, or even interpersonal relationships into easily digestible formats for their audience’s consumption.

    Like the author of “Luo Zhenyu’s Scam,” I don’t put much stock in pay-for-knowledge schemes. Neither do I see the people behind them as unscrupulous hucksters; after all, they’re just out to make money by providing people with a set of formulaic, sound-bite answers. While they reduce multidimensional, subtle forms of knowledge to patronizingly simplistic forms, this poses no obstacle to their continued success, since this style satisfies an audience who want to get more bang for their buck without having to actually think.

    The Chinese word for “knowledge” — at least, the word most often used when referring to platforms like Luo’s — is zhishi. It’s composed of two characters: The first, zhi, is the cumulative subtotal of all the information that you hold in your head; the second, shi, carries a subtler meaning, referring to cognition, understanding, the ability to discern among ideas. China’s pay-for-knowledge platforms cater to the demand for the former, not the latter.

    Knowledge is not the same as information. It’s certainly not something that can be gained by watching a few television shows, any more than it can be obtained by reading a few books or listening to a few podcasts. Yet in China, a country where the education system has for centuries been predicated on the supposed value of rote learning, people still equate wisdom with the number of facts you can stuff into your brain. This culture is a barrier to the critical thinking required for true intellectual ability, and it leads learners down the path to pedantry.

    Almost everyone has experienced traditional pay-for-knowledge schemes in one form or another. In their earliest incarnation, schools and training organizations charged us money in exchange for an education. Traditional pay-for-knowledge organizations primarily offered students some kind of qualification or concrete ability. It was a model suited to an era defined by China’s imperial civil service exams, where tests were seen as the be-all and end-all solution for knowledge assessment.

    These models, long considered obsolete, actually bear resemblance to today’s “pay-for-knowledge” system. One group produces vast quantities of assignments designed to elicit a fixed set of answers. A second group takes great pains to try and master these answers. Finally, a third group profits by selling the latter canned answers to the former’s questions.

    Growing up in the Chinese education system, I quickly cottoned on to the supposed benefits of test-ready model answers. As long as you could write out a prescribed response, your score would soar. The ability to regurgitate such answers gave students with eidetic memories an edge when it came to earning extra credit, and helped them pass the high school and college entrance exams. However, once I graduated, it became clear that there are no prescribed answers for success in life.

    The acquisition of knowledge — real knowledge, that is, not isolated snippets of trivia — is a constant cycle, one that requires us to ask questions, reflect, analyze, question things further, and be open to adjusting our beliefs. True lifelong students must constantly query what they think they know in order to learn more about the world.

    The skepticism involved in this practice comes with risks. When Socrates was sentenced to death in ancient Athens, he was convicted on two counts. The first was blasphemy: denying the existence of the gods. The second was corrupting the youth of Athens. Yet Socrates had never denied the existence of the gods, nor had he corrupted the city’s youth — he just openly questioned their legitimacy.

    Socrates believed that the gods were wise. If one believes in the gods, then they should seek out true wisdom, rather than putting their faith in the various sketches of the divine presented by the city’s poets. Socrates was merely acting the shepherd, guiding the youth of Athens on their journey of self-examination.

    Socrates died a worthy death. Yet in China today, pay-for-knowledge platforms encourage us to abandon his spirit. When everyone else is thinking solely of quick-fix material gain, who is willing to be patient and ponder deeper questions? While the chattering classes natter about the impact of inflation on their bank accounts, the price of property, or the difficulty of securing their kids a place at school, who’s going to sit down in the corner and quietly read an entire book? When so few people are genuinely inquisitive, it’s no wonder we’re trying to buy all of life’s answers.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: Luo Zhenyu makes a speech in Beijing, Dec. 31, 2015. Mao Yanzheng/VCG)