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Fair Game - Info is not knowledge
Philip Fairbanks.png
Philip Fairbanks

Sometime in the 20th century, the world entered into what has been called The Information Age - a revolution at least as earth-shaking as the era entered when the first books and pamphlets rolled off the Gutenberg Press. The last century saw people go from receiving their news solely from newspapers to receiving live radio broadcasts which would eventually be overtaken by TV news which would morph into the 24-hour cable news landscape we currently inhabit. And of course, we can’t forget the world wide web. 

“Information” isn’t enough by itself though. A pile of data doesn’t do anyone any good until it’s been analyzed and evaluated and put into context before any conclusions can be drawn. For some simple questions, a simple internet search may be sufficient. For simple mathematics, names, dates and uncontested and uncontroversial topics, Wikipedia or Google might be a fine place to start, but without some real grasp of a topic, you can’t even think critically about it. 

Data has to be ordered for it to be understood. And even ordered data without context isn’t “knowledge.” Even if you have a firm foundation of understanding on a topic, it’s not the same as having the wisdom that comes from experience to know what to do with that knowledge.

Richard Hanania is a Research Fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Last month he made some news for a controversial tweet related to the place of the elderly in our Information Age: “Maybe old people shouldn’t all commit seppuku, but we need to think creatively about how they can have dignity in a world where many are only burdens. With technological change becoming more rapid, they no longer even have wisdom to offer young generations. Need new solutions.”

Hanania’s techno-optimism, bleak as it may be, is a sign of the times. Ironically, this kind of miscalculation (mistaking an array of information for the ability to navigate and get anything out of it) is a perfect example of the dangers inherent in leaving everything up to Google. Hanania’s tweet was specifically a response to a Yale professor, Yusuke Narita, who suggested “mass suicide” as a way to solve the “economic burden” of the elderly in Japan.  

The problem is, even if you have all the answers, not having the how or the why or the wisdom that comes from experience to manage all the intangibles sets one up for failure. The Information Age is here and no amount of Luddite passion is liable to change the trajectory of our technologically-dependent society. With that said, if we are to make it as a species, an understanding of the distinction between knowledge and wisdom could be vital. 

Knowledge on its own can be dangerous. Alexander Pope warned of this, saying “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Amassing any amount of knowledge without the wisdom and emotional intelligence to navigate it will always be a dangerous pursuit.

Standard reporter Philip Fairbanks can be reached at (931) 473-2191.