A philosopher is a lover of wisdom, not of knowledge, which for all its great uses ultimately suffers from the crippling effect of ephemerality. All knowledge is transiently linked to the world around it and subject to change as the world changes, whereas wisdom, true wisdom, is eternally immutable. To be philosophical one must love wisdom for its own sake, accept its permanent validity and yet its perpetual irrelevance. It is the fate of the wise to understand the process of history and yet never to shape it.
-Shashi Tharoor, former UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information
Unknown to many of us, the era we live in is known as the Information age, and it began only 29 years ago. As it denotes, this is a period characterized by the sheer force and propagation of knowledge and we’re living only in its infancy, many of us having grown up with
We live in a world of unparalleled knowledge and research, where every day – if not every hour at times – some knew discovery is made or a new project is being undertaken. More unprecedented, however, is the great diffusion of knowledge: for the first time in history, nearly all the sum of the world’s knowledge thus far is out there and available for many to absorb. The internet undoubtedly bears a huge responsibility for this, with its invention being the marker with which the information age began (in fact that was the original idea of the Worldwide Web as proposed by Sir Thomas Berners Lee, its inventor, in the 1990s). Suddenly, we can type anything that comes to mind in a myriad of search and info sites and get a list (if not pages) of information, as well as reference points. More books are published every day and more periodicals and journals are established every few months. Heck, speaking by experience, 5 years ago, when I first started majoring in International Relations and Political Science, there were only about 3 major magazines on the subject: now I’ve seen about 12 at my local Barns and Nobles (much to my dismay, I can only afford to subscribe to so many :P). Universities and libraries are popping up everywhere, especially in many rising nations and now even cell phones and MP3 players can access repositories of knowledge.
Most important of all, the unprecedented link that we’ve established—our capacity to communicate with one another across borders and vast distances—has bred an exchange of ideas and knowledge that was scarcely imagined at any point in human history. This constant trade of knowledge has become a global market place where theories, political ideas, philosophies, cures, recipes, health diets, lifestyles, religion, and everything we can humanly process is just flowing all around us, often stacking with one another and breeding even newer concepts that are further passed along. We’ve created a melting pot of information that more and more of the world (as communications technology spreads) is both adding to and taking a piece of. The formation of multination corporations, international research teams, inter-university partnerships, and more globalized media are the symptoms of a world increasingly more connected in its pursuit—and its access to-knowledge. Some even speak of this knowledge bringing down oppression and dictatorships, as more people (especially the Chinese, a good case-study of this) become exposed to ideas that, try as they might, their repressive governments cannot totally stifle in a world of quickly developing and improving communications. Revolutions can be guided by mass knowledge of injustice and fueled by ideas like liberty than by sheer angst and poverty (where were the original catalyst historically).
Granted, with all those ‘positive’ ingredients come the toxic ones, the ones that breed war, international terrorist networks, and nationalism. Evil forces use this free flow to propagate their own agenda, to recruit people into their nefarious schemes and even exploit them. Regimes censor and control the media in their nations, and however difficult their task, often succeed (though this is debated, especially in its permanence). Hated, fear, and angst can flow as freely as their positive counterparts, and can often be just as tempting. In a more technical sense, hackers and other digital dissidents can infiltrate this system and corrupt and destroy it, exploiting our increasing dependence on communications technology to transmit everything from billions of dollars to pornography.
We don’t realize it, but in such a world as described, anyone of us has the potential to be a scholar and intellectual, to know whatever we want should we choose to open our minds to it. So many of us ‘average’ people make intellectual quips, judge human nature, and question existence and the metaphysical, when such musings were, for the bulk of human history, reserved for a negligible percentage of the world’s population. While ignorance and stupidity, of course, remain, as they always will, they are nowhere near the levels they once were, especially as every generation becomes wiser and more informed than the preceding. Who knows what are children and grandchildren will know in their lifetimes?
To think that for much of human history, knowledge and even literacy for that matter, was the domain of a paltry few elites and aristocrats. Now it has become the domain of the common man and woman, conspiracy theories notwithstanding. Universities have become less for the privileged and more for the average person. Public universities, such as my own FIU, have boomed in both their influence and their admissions. The gap between high-culture and low-culture have been closing in fast, as everyone from skinheads to sports junkies embrace art and human activism, while WASPS and old-money elites enjoy video games and reality television. With this free flow of data comes the exposure to different outlooks and interests never before known and the elimination of subcultures and, to some extent, class (after all, class divisions are as much dependent upon knowledge and educational attainment as they are to money and power).
Knowledge has become so widespread and available that we scarcely see it as anything special. Education and data have been taken for granted by their sheer availability and widespread acceptance as a human given. We mustn’t squander these opportunities people! Indeed, many of us aren’t, as our ambitions have risen with our knowledge: more and more people want to ‘save the world’ and do their part. Causes against poverty and injustice become a given to nearly all college students, at least nominally. With knowledge comes the desire to apply that knowledge and the understanding of the problems and conditions of the world that must be addressed.
We are approaching, if not having already arrived, at the precipice of human history. The world is dying and on the verge of collapse in the face of environmental degradation, over consumption, international discord, and our usual petty conflicts. Never have we come so close to destruction (although that’s debatable) and never have we had the means, the information, to do something about it.
All this knowledge can be overwhelming and disparaging though. Nothing is ever true for long it seems, and there is always a new study or discovery that disproves something we’d just learned about, or worst still, always thought we knew was true. Age-old conventions we grew up with and lived by are broken and doubted. Everything becomes so impermanent or ambiguous and nothing seems to have a clear cut answer any more (and if it does, it gets challenged or disproven at some point). This making solving are all individual and national problems, if not the myriad global problems we face as a whole, all the more daunting and seemingly impossible. We can’t find a consensus to deal with this economic crisis, with terrorism, with global warming (which some people can’t accept the existence of), with poverty, with finding love, with healthcare…and so on and so forth. We even start to question existence itself and God and the human condition. And being bombarded with all this knowledge everywhere we go doesn’t help: we feel overwhelmed, unable to take it all in, or to make up our minds. The free flow of knowledge becomes chaotic and more reminiscent of a storm. Ironically we face the increasingly cliché notion that the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know, and suddenly we feel lost and unsure in a world we don’t really seem to understand anymore.
We think the world is more violent and troubled than it really is, if only because we know what is going on everywhere all the time. We’re exposed to so many images and reports of war, human rights abuses, violence, rape, disaster, and death that we feel it’s all coming to an end, when we’re actually LESS violent and worse off than every before. Its not that the world is worse than ever, but merely that we’re more informed than ever.
All of this confusion can breed nihilism and a sense of despair and powerlessness, as we are too uncertain—or too exposed to negative ideas that also flow around us—to act. We start asking what’s the point, why bother knowing? Why live in truth and knowledge when ignorance is bliss and that bliss is really all that should matter? Why believe in this when there is that? Why trust or believe in anything anymore, period? Paradoxically, it is through asking questions that we get answers, and yet is through getting answers that we ask questions.
Ah, who knows! Just keep your minds open, however daunting that may be. I don’t really know what else to say but that.