06 January 2008|
Thoughts on the Information Age
It's not what you know, it's how you use it
We are currently living in the 'information age'. This much is undisputed. Through the miracle of the internet, we have access to knowledge and information which would have been unfathomable only twenty-five years earlier.
Traditional models of education and even ideas about knowledge itself are now changing mightily. It is now entirely possible for anyone, of any socio-economic status, to study and download University-level (or higher) course material from the comfort of their own room or favorite local internet cafe. So is the information age ushering in a new era of intellectual understanding and prosperity for all? Maybe, but I doubt it. It is difficult to gauge just how forceful the transmutation of the internet will be on human society, as the medium is practically new and there has been no time for historical perspective.
Consider that up until recent history, the person with the most knowledge held the most power, literally. Throughout history, knowledge has been hoarded by the elite. (The best teachers in the world were reserved for royalty, the Greek Philosophers were aristocrats, etc). It’s hard to imagine for us living in the present day United States, where public education is mandatory, that only a short time ago the rich were tutored and elementary schools were private, expensive and few.
It is true that a multitude of information is free to be accessed and studied by anyone with the internet. As a result, our society is obsessed with information. Just look at all the quiz shows on TV: Jeopardy, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader, ad nauseum. Does the popularity of these shows mean we must be getting smarter and richer as a society? Not quite.
The rub is that the vast majority of the information in this 'information age' is factoid. It is knowledge, yes, but it isn't actually useful. It is far better to understand, for example, the causes of the Revolutionary War rather than the date of the battle of Saratoga. Factoids reduce human achievements into stats, and thus cheat individuality. We all know Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. But what we don't hear about is his unwavering persistence and resilience in facing the tens of thousands of difficulties he encountered along the way. Sadly, the greatness of the man is instead reduced to a few flips of the tongue and lips.
Just because the information is more readily available doesn't mean it is actually worthwhile.
There will also be a shrewd few who will be selfmotivated enough to teach themselves a new skill through the internet. But most of them are probably the same type of individual who would have been selftaught if they were living prior to the internet age. Entrepreneurs did exist before the internet, right?
The second reason why I'm hesitant to proclaim that the information age will bring on a new level of human enlightenment is that knowledge by itself is impotent. Just as knowledge without understanding is pointless, knowledge without action is fruitless. In order for our society to truly reap the benefits of the internet, we must go beyond the surface (like say a dog miraculously riding a skateboard on a YouTube video) and examine what we are learning and why we are learning it. We must ask, How can we put this information into practice in our everyday lives?
The majority of the information available on the internet simply isn't useful at doing this. In my view, there are only two uses of information worth pursuing: 1) Info to use toward financial or material gain and 2) Info to use toward personal development or spiritual enlightenment. The internet is filled with millions of pages of valuable information, however it is also filled with billions of pages of PerezHilton and MySpace.
In the end, knowledge is what you do with it. It must be put into practice for it to be relevant. (No disrespect to my friends in academia.)
Ironically, as information becomes even more accessible and even easier to catalogue and access, the less relevant it will be toward forwarding the aims of the infoseeker. Study the classics and practice hard- for they will reap benefits greater than even the pleasure of poking that girl you met at a bar last week on Facebook.