Monday, April 23, 2012

The Death of Knowledge?

 A few weeks ago during a sermon church, I was thinking about the Gospel. Which is what I always do, for almost the whole of the two hour service.
But, during a rare moment of letting my mind wander, I started to think about the opening "hook" the preacher had used to grab the attention of the congregation. Very often at my church these are brief historical anecdotes, references to the popular perception of an idea or an issue (usually culled from a news story or poll), or brief biographical tidbits. Common beginnings include "on this day in history, x-hundreds of years ago," "according to Gallop, most people believe," or "you might know that Martin Luther was the first Protestant Reformer, but did you know he also called comets 'harlot stars'?" (Okay, maybe I've never heard a preacher use that last one, but here's hoping!)
What struck me was not so much the illustration the preacher used (right now I can’t even remember what it was, and am too lazy to look it up), but rather how unimpressed I was that he knew it. I don’t think this is so much arrogance on my part—though that, of course, is always a danger—as it is a reflection on the changing nature of our information-saturated society. Knowledge of historical events, modern day trends, and great figures past and present is a Google or Wikipedia search away. What once required a college education now requires basic literacy and computer skills. If I want to know what Alexander the Great thought about cultural pluralism, or what happened on this day seven hundred years ago in any continent (literally—even Antarctica is no longer the mystery it once was), or even what toppings Americans prefer on their roast beef sandwiches, I can find out in a matter of seconds.

This is no small matter when considered in the broader context of the Western philosophical tradition. Even at a surface level glance, I suggest that there are two major implications to be made from this shift in the accessibility of knowledge.

First, we lose our respect for knowledge. Prior to the rise of the Internet, knowledge had to be worked for. It was something that involved time, discipline, and cost. We respected those who had it, even if we disagreed with what they did with it. We condemned as charlatans those who claimed to have it but were revealed to only have their own opinions dressed up in the trappings of wisdom. And we outright despised those who acquired it through false means. I don’t even mean so much the truly old repulsion against those who acquired knowledge through the arcane and the unholy as I mean those who simply cheated. Being revealed as a plagiarist or even just copying the person next to you was considered despicable morally and could result in expulsion from the ranks of the knowledgeable. (Remember the shift in public perception of popular historian Stephen Ambrose after it was revealed that he hadn’t been quite honest in his footnoting…)
With the Internet, that is no longer the case. Thanks to the blogosphere and social media, taking facts and ideas from others is not only allowed it is actively encouraged. If I post information on Facebook, it is understood that I do not mind if others take that information and pass it along. Cheating is of course still technically against the rules, but even that no longer carries the stigma it once held, as shown by the students’ I’ve caught cheating shrugging it off and simply taking the course the next semester with a different professor.
Obviously the sharing of information with such ease is not in itself a bad thing. What is troubling is the lack of respect for knowledge that such sharing has generated. Where in the past we respected the effort and time necessary to gaining knowledge, today we pass it around as casually as old ladies with gossip. Plato encouraged us to respect philosophers for their wisdom, soldiers for their courage, and everyone else for their discipline. Today we still respect laborers for their hard work and toil and soldiers for their courage, but as knowledge has become democratic in its availability and pervasiveness, we are in the process of losing what was once considered the capstone of society (at least in theory, not always so much in practice). As every person has become a philosopher, wisdom has been dying a slow and agonizing death.

Second, and perhaps more troubling, we have stopped seeing knowledge as something transformative with moral value, and started seeing it as an objectified collection of data. Knowledge is no longer something we internalize and put to work in our lives for the purpose of virtue, it is rather an external something to be used and cast aside as needed. Plato once argued that “if a sound system of nurture and education is maintained, it produces men of good disposition.” Today, we see knowledge as completely unrelated to disposition, as an objective something unrelated to ourselves in any meaningful personal way. This shows a stunted development on our part: the pursuit of knowledge should never be merely an intellectual activity, it should be a transformative ethical experience. That is lost when knowledge is available at the press of a button.

What does this mean for the future? I don’t know. It might mean we need a new Plato to come along and remind us of the usefulness of knowledge, and spur us on to a reorientation of our goals. It might mean we need to change our perception of knowledge and admit (defeat?) that we can no longer live according to the classical Western approach to wisdom. It might even mean that something never before seen is on the intellectual horizon: people who have access to all the gathered corpus of human knowledge but none of the discipline or virtue necessary to use it well. But that gets us beyond philosophy and into science fiction, which is above my pay grade.

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