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KNOWLEDGE: Our Relationship With Knowledge - Part Two
Is editing our relationship with knowledge possible?
In an earlier article entitled Our Relationship With Knowledge I made the case that our culture wide assumption that "more knowledge is always better" was a very rational philosophy in the long era of knowledge scarcity. But today we live in a new era which is characterized by knowledge exploding in every direction at an ever accelerating rate. And so our relationship with knowledge needs to adapt to meet the challenges presented by this new environment.
I presented arguments for that proposal in the earlier article, and in this article I'll try to address what seems to be a key objection.
Is Editing Our Relationship With Knowledge Possible?
As best I can tell from years of writing about this around the net, the primary problem readers have with my demand that we learn how to take control of the pace of the knowledge explosion is that this doesn't seem possible.
This is a very reasonable concern because adjusting our relationship with knowledge will at the least be very challenging, and may indeed prove to be impossible.
This reasonable concern can to some degree be addressed by the following three points:
Taking control of the knowledge explosion is not optional because the price tag for failing to do so is unacceptably high.
Real world events in the modern era contain the potential to alter status quo assumptions at unprecedented speeds.
We've radically changed our relationship with knowledge in the past, which suggests it is possible to do so again.
That's the quick summary. Now let's dive in to each of these three factors in more detail.
POINT ONE: Editing Our Relationship With Knowledge Is Not Optional
What keeps me writing about the need to update our relationship with knowledge is an overwhelming sense that doing so is not optional. To illustrate this, let's briefly compare two things:
The knowledge explosion creates ever more, ever larger powers, at an ever accelerating rate.
Human beings are not gods, but creatures of limited ability like every other species on the planet.
Imagine plotting these two factors on a graph. The powers emerging from the knowledge explosion go up and up and up on the graph riding an ever steeper curve, while human maturity, morality and judgement inch gradually upwards (at best) along the bottom of the graph. That is, the lines on this graph rapidly diverge over time as the gap between power and maturity widens.
Sooner or later, one way or another, this ever widening gap results in our failure to manage the situation. We don't keep up. To argue otherwise is to claim that we are gods, capable of unlimited ability. I think we can probably all agree that we are not gods.
I take some comfort from knowing that it's not optional for us to take on the challenge of editing our relationship with knowledge, because when human beings have our backs against the wall, and understand that to be the case, we can be very effective in responding.
POINT TWO: Real World Events To The Rescue
In today's cultural status quo I really do agree that there is no chance of us taking control of the knowledge explosion. Currently, we don't even want to talk about that.
But, because of the vast scale of the technologies available to us today, real world events have the potential to radically alter the status quo over relatively short periods of time.
This is already happening with climate change to a limited degree, as real world events persuade more of us that we can't keep consuming more and more and more without limit.
Other events can alter our assumptions even more quickly. With recent news in mind, what if Putin were to start dropping nuclear weapons around Ukraine in a last ditch desperate effort to extract himself from his psychopathic folly?
In such a case, the round the clock media focus on these horrific historic events would make 9/11 coverage look like a little local news story. Our faces would be ruthlessly shoved in to our failure to control the first existential scale technology, nuclear weapons.
No one can predict how global culture would respond to such epic atrocities, but the potential is there at least for a significant rethinking of some of the fundamental assumptions of the modern world. You know, how much more power do we want to provide to people like Putin? More people would be asking such questions.
Most people don't relate to abstract ideas that much. They need to see it to believe it. They want something tangible. Once the reality of an out of control knowledge explosion is actually witnessed with our own eyes, real change becomes a possibility.
POINT THREE: We've Done This Before
Students of history will recall that Western civilization was overwhelmingly dominated by the Catholic Church to a degree which is unimaginable today... for a thousand years.
A thousand years. Think about that. To those living during those centuries the cultural dominance of the Catholic Church must have seemed eternal, a fact of life which would be forever with us.
But that's not what happened. About 500 years ago or so the so called Enlightenment thinkers began to challenge everything.
While the knowledge philosophy of the ancient Catholic Church was that we should believe the teachings of the Church as a matter of faith, the Enlightenment thinkers offered a very different relationship with knowledge, a questioning of everything, critical thinking, and the age of reason.
And so the 1,000 year long cultural dominance of the Catholic Church was gradually replaced with the cultural dominance of the scientific community.
The point here is not to argue for or against any religion, but only to point out that dramatic changes in our relationship with knowledge have happened in the past, and thus presumably can happen again.
What's Coming Next
I think we are at the dawn of a similar period of fundamental change today. Not just a change in our technology, but a change in our philosophy too, a change in our relationship with knowledge.
If we fail to manage the pace of the knowledge explosion we could be headed backwards towards some version of a repeat of the medieval dark ages. Yes, that can really happen, as proven by the fact that it has already happened. Our civilization can actually really collapse. The Roman Empire appeared indestructible too, until it wasn’t.
But if we take on this work and succeed at evolving our relationship with knowledge to meet the challenges of our time, we just might become more mature and more secure. The possibility is there for us to take control of our destiny, to grow up, and become, well, adults.
Taking control of the knowledge explosion so it proceeds at a sane pace which we can successfully manage will be challenging, no doubt about it. But it's not impossible, unless we insist on saying that it is.
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