Our lives are drenched with information. With so much that we could think about it’s inevitable that we shut most of it out of our consciousness for fear that our brains will crash through overload. So selective can be our focus that we can easily miss the blindingly obvious. Give ourselves time to think and we have to question where the wisdom has gone that is lost in so much knowledge, and where is the knowledge that we have lost to a relentless flood of information?
our brains are primed to analyse what’s going on around us. We are gluttons for any information which either reinforces, or contradicts, something which is already important to us. Information sorted through and related to other ideas makes us knowledgeable and we became the kind of people who do well in a Quiz Night. Knowledge is to such people organized information. Wisdom, however, is something different. Wisdom is the capacity to know what knowledge you need to bring to bear on a particular kind of problem. Wisdom implies the knowledge is being used within some clearly understood structure. Wisdom is knowledge thoughtfully applied.
What we do with the knowledge we accumulate depends very much on our motives. We can be excessively competitive, as well as disarmingly altruistic. We refine weapons of mass destruction with as much ease as we develop the technologies of modern medicine. We can be surprisingly energetic – yet disconcertingly lazy. We can be extraordinarily thoughtful, yet we have an almost infinite appetite for distraction as is well known to the producers of TV advertisements. Deferred gratification is not a skill that is easily acquired. It was perhaps easier four hundred or so years ago when there was not so much information to handle and when our minds were less like the butterflies that they tend to be today.
In the late 1500s a surprisingly large number of people read a lot, for an average of two books a year were sold to each of the four and a quarter million people living in England. Across the Atlantic a hundred years later ninety-four percent of the population in Massachusettswere literate and most read a weekly newspaper1. Reading was an essential means of keeping in touch. Unhurried, meandering people have time “to chew over an idea”, to go down possible alternative route ways, and share conclusions with their neighbours. Only with the invention of the locomotive in the 1820s was it possible for man to travel faster than a racehorse.
Our ancestors did not trouble themselves much with long-term thinking (the future was, they thought quite literally, in God’s hands), and what was out of sight was certainly out of mind. So inured have we become by the artificial world of television that, during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003, some American viewers were said to have mistaken the nightly news bulletins from Baghdad for another episode of the epic film “Saving Private Ryan”. It is all too easy for reality and fiction to become dangerously mixed up.
When George Orwell looked into the future more than fifty years ago he feared the possibility of society being dominated by a Big Brother who would deprive individuals of their autonomy, maturity and history. “Nineteen eighty-four”2 portrayed a chilling prospect. Somewhat earlier Aldus Huxley in “Brave New World”3 proposed something even more sinister. Whereas Orwell saw whole populations controlled through censorship, Huxley feared that people could be lulled into losing their critical faculties, and that the truth would simply be drowned out in a sea of irrelevant information. Huxley saw future societies so preoccupied with triviality that it had no idea where they were going. Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”4 was a frighteningly perceptive analysis of how contemporary society actually, in the mid 1980s, seemed to be rushing headlong into just such a brave new world where people were so addicted to the technologies that they had lost the capacity to think for themselves, and had forgotten their history.
Neither Orwell nor Huxley could have imagined the scale of information that early twenty-first century citizens are now dealing with, nor could either of them have anticipated the array of fascinating distractions now available 24/7, constantly competing for our time. Neither of these writers, nor our Stone Age ancestors, had to consider the implications of life-extending drugs and therapies which would compete for the resources needed for the education of the next generation. Have we become too clever for our own individual good, but not yet wise enough to ensure our collective survival?
Thesis 15: 24th August 2006