Mark Franke: Dumbing down by knowing too much

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? — “The Rock” by T.S. Eliot

We live in an age of sensory overload. We are tied to gadgets that bombard us with snippets of information that are endless data points that never seem to tie together. Whether 30 second sound bites on TV, single sentence news headlines crossing the chyron or, worst of all, short videos on those ubiquitous social media outlets, it never ends.

We are told everything. We learn nothing.

In the quote above, T.S. Eliot bemoans such a state of affairs as if he were living today. He wrote those lines in 1934 as part of a pageant to raise funds for the building of new churches in Depression-era London. I owe thanks to author Simon Winchester, who used this quote to introduce his latest book, “Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge from Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic.”

Eliot recognized a hierarchy of human intellectual achievement. It is supposed to work like this: We gather bits of information that can be assembled into a new piece of knowledge that, when added to our base of accumulated knowledge and with sufficient contemplation, becomes wisdom.

Plato listed wisdom as one of the four virtues which lead to a moral life, the highest human achievement. I can only wonder what Plato would think if he could observe our society today. The cynic Diogenes, Plato’s philosophical nemesis, might find himself quite at home, but I can hardly credit that to be a good thing.

I first encountered this kind of hierarchy when I spent several years early in my higher education career as a manager in the university’s IT department. This was the era of the relational database’s ascendancy. These huge databases were built on a simple mathematical model designed to hold essentially unlimited amounts of simple pieces of data. Pulling related data out in a report was designated the information level. Integrating multiple databases at a high level to support managerial decision making was called the knowledge level. Sound familiar?

I have oversimplified but the same hierarchy is at play here as in the more general intellectual level referenced by Eliot above. The major difference is the addition of a granular data level at the bottom and the absence of a wisdom level at the top, unless the frightening advent of AI counts. It makes one wonder if there were some created universal system for human intellectual activity moving mankind upward from simple observation to absolute truth.

To some Eliot may have seemed a 20th century Luddite, decrying the technological advances made during his lifetime. Now think of our lifetime or that of our children and grandchildren. How much knowledge or wisdom comes from these perpetual interruption machines we all carry? Virtually none, I would suggest.

I am trying hard not to be hypocritical about this. I have a cell phone although with the ringer permanently turned off. Still, I find it hard not to check it every time I feel a buzzing sensation in my back pocket. I gather lots of information from it, most of which I forget within three minutes or less.

My grandchildren cannot imagine a world without cellphones, tablets and social media. I can, and miss it.

Eliot asked the following question and I will leave it to you to answer it for yourself. You can guess how he and I would respond.

“With all the technological advances and change, is mankind happier or wiser than he was 100 years ago?”

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].