A whole lot of knowledge

The World Wide Web is 20 years old, I am informed, and in that time we have accumulated huge amounts of knowledge. At a moments notice, with the aid of Google, Wikipedia and Amazon, we can access vast quantities of information, pretty much immediately.

The Encyclopaedia set that I grew up with in my parent’s house is old and out of date as a concept – the sheer quantity of information available online, and its continual updates makes the idea seem quaint and outmoded. Yet, when I was a child I felt lucky to have these books to research for school projects and coursework. Modern children have access to so much more knowledge and information and this can only be a good thing.

Yet has our increased knowledge led to more wisdom? Can we say in that in the last 20 years we have become wiser through the information we now have access to?

Unfortunately, probably not. I say unfortunately, as I, like many others, love to read, and accumulate books at a faster rate than I can read them. Indeed this is probably why I recently spent two years writing my own. It’s almost like I live inside the spell of what if I could just know all of this stuff – then everything would be ok.

But what would be ok? Would I somehow be good enough? Would the world (or other people) somehow be more predictable, more understandable, and less existentially scary? It’s unlikely to happen, as what gives us a sense of security in ourselves, others and the world, is a deeper sense of knowing and security… something we might call wisdom.

This gap between knowledge and wisdom is not new. Indeed Plato, in whose time writing began to spread to the wider population, wrote in his book Phaedrus, that more wide spread use of writing was detrimental to the attainment of wisdom. In it, he used the character of Socrates to proclaim that writing “is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

It is worth remembering this in a time when so much knowledge and information appears to be available so readily, and when it’s easy to get into intellectual competitions about how much we know. Knowing about something, memorising it, even understanding it, is a different level of knowing than being able to do something different as a result. Doing something different as a result of knowing about something, and struggling to change our habitual patterns of behaviour as a result – this is the building blocks of wisdom. Unfortunately it takes a lot more work than just reading books!


3:26 pm | by Pete_Hamill

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