We definitely live in an information society, yes! We might live in a knowledge based society. Emphasis on might! But can we claim that our society is wise? Definitely not!

Today there are more people than ever before working on generating information. Information is in a sense any piece of non-random data that you can put down on paper or in a hard disk. The prime drivers of information generation are university workers. In the university the ability to generate information is a prerequisite for promotion and hence much effort is expended on publishing information both on paper in the form of the exploding number of journals but also orally in terms of the exploding number of conference talks and press releases. This is clearly an inflationary trend that nobody seems to recognize as such: Organize a conference,publish a paper, etc. so that you may get promoted before the promoters find out that everybody else is doing the same thing and thus raise their prices accordingly. This results in a steady push towards higher “prices”: It takes longer and longer CVs/resumes to do essentially the same job.

You can not write knowledge down on paper, nor can you relay knowledge to other people in a talk or a lecture. Knowledge strictly exists inside people’s heads. Knowledge is therefore a private matter and all a teacher can do is to facilitate the student’s process of forming this knowledge in his head. The idea that teachers pour knowledge into students heads as if it was some kind of product is founded on a complete misunderstanding of how the human mind works. Brains are not computers.

The social aggregate consequence of this is that the amount of knowledge is strictly proportional to the amount of time people spend thinking about information. It is interesting, thus, to note that knowledge directly depends on the ability of people to have sufficient resources to spend their time thinking instead of say working. Knowledge is thus a positive function on the amount of energy input into society. In other words, if, say professors, as the supposed carriers of knowledge did not have enough time to think about their knowledge (because society could no longer afford their grants), this knowledge would evaporate. The information would be left in the books and journals, but it would be useless. If you don’t believe me go and pick up a random scholarly article and see if you understand anything of it right away, that is, anything without first learning the jingo — that will take years, even in fields one should think were quite adjacent.

Unfortunately, the process of acquiring knowledge stops right there. I think this is because the scientific method, which has been very effective in generating knowledge, has not been matched with a comparable advance in terms of wisdom. In our knowledge based society we know how to build factories and cars, we know how to build plastic bags and airconditioners, we know how to genetically modify plants and build guided missiles. We just go ask some expert that has dedicated his entire life to such pursuits. However, nobody seems to know or even ask why and if we should build
factories, cars, GM plants or guided missiles. The wisdom is lacking and there is an implicit understanding that all knowledge is objective and value neutral. Perhaps it is but knowledge without wisdom is as dangerous as wisdom without knowledge is impotent.

Originally posted 2008-12-24 10:58:48.