The Death of Wisdom
There’s an old story about the history of civilization that goes like this: In the beginning, humans sought wisdom. Wisdom proved hard to obtain, however, so we turned our attention to seeking knowledge. But even knowledge became elusive, so we sought information instead. Now information itself is questionable. All that’s left is to look at the data.
Wisdom, in other words, has been replaced by the pie chart.
The cultivation of wisdom requires time and distance. Both are in short supply in a network culture that exalts change and crisis as the very definition of our personal and social experience. The economics of “news” demands this. A manic public, addicted to the daily fix of events, commentary, polling and instant feedback, consumes vast quantities of what passes for information and knowledge with little time to critically reflect on it. They hear and see more and more, but they “know” less and less. If people actually took the time to reflect on information these days, they might choose to ignore it as background noise and take a leisurely walk instead of staying wired into the network and constantly being “in touch.”
But they can’t. The economy would literally grind to a halt without our addiction to the “feed.”
Consumption, not reflection, drives the network. Immediacy, not distance, is its primary quality. It’s common to say we live in a mediated culture. It’s less common, but more accurate, to say we live in an immediated culture.
Researchers estimate that there are more than 20,000 minutes (about two weeks) of “unique” mediated content available for every minute of every day. And that ratio counts the Web as a single channel of content. When you factor in the almost nine billion web addresses that Google and other search engines monitor, the supply of content is essentially unlimited.
Are we better informed as a result of all this content? Maybe, but you wouldn’t know it by the tone and quality of the public conversation. In the immediated culture, statements replace arguments, opinion often masquerades as fact, 10-minute discussions of complex issues on television represent an eternity, and 600 words or less is all anybody will take the time to read.
Constant circulation is the thing. It doesn’t matter where something comes from. It’s only important where it goes.
The health care reform debate/debacle is one of many cases in point. If ever an issue cried out for wisdom and time to critically reflect on the various proposals, health care is it. It is much too complex to be reduced to superficial sound bites and laid out in scripted summaries and 10-minute debates, yet that is the cauldron where public policy is fashioned and sold these days.
To be sure, the Democrats were seduced by the immediacy of the moment and attempted to fashion a plan at the same time Congress was running up the deficit, bailing out Wall Street and hearing from millions of citizens who were out of work. Their intentions were good, but their timing was lousy – jobs, security, and fiscal restraint trumped health care, and the Dems took a significant political hit.
The larger question, however, is whether the increasing dominance of the immediated culture in all of its forms calls into question traditional approaches to fashioning public policy and requires entirely novel ways of thinking about, and responding to, complex issues like health care, the economy, the environment, and even representative government itself.
Today, it’s all about performance and constant, self-adjusting feedback. It’s not immediacy in the sense of being in the present, but immediacy in the sense of being in a mediatedpresentation. When you think of our sociocultural milieu this way, you begin to see why we visualize information in graphics and arresting videos instead of reflecting on information and experience in “rational discourse.”
We don’t study the issues anymore – we stage them.
Those from the old school who don’t buy the death of wisdom thesis may not find much of the immediated culture to be appealing. But a major shift in technology, culture and consciousness is underway, and one suspects we can’t even begin to comprehend just how strange and fundamentally different the future could be.
It’s something to reflect on. Immediately.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.