Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Information Overload (Part 1)

It has been said that we're living in the information age. Never before have the vast repositories of human history been so quickly at our disposal, nor have we squandered them quite so spectacularly (need proof? Click here!). Random guys on PBS have been speculating that we're approaching “the Singularity” due to a rapidly expanding amorphous blob of self-referential internet “culture” (heaven save us!). In fact, the problem has gotten so bad that I got into a rather pleasant conversation with my hair stylist yesterday concerning the evils of the Smartphone.

(Yes, I went to a hair stylist. It was $5 men's haircut day at the International Academy of Hair-Cuttery, Cosmetology, and Something or Other, and I was brave enough to let some random hair student conduct experiments on me. I had to sign a waiver. It was quite terrifying. Now back to Smartphones.).

These blasted little devices of infernal technology enable us to neglect the entire process of recollecting knowledge stored in our memory by fusing our brains to the interwebz, allowing us to indulge at will our basest desires for little tidbits of drivel from the Huffington Post or blip-bloops of mind-numbing, cerebral-jelaptizing entertainment from YouTube, all while allowing us to wax eloquent on our daily operations via crudely distressed Instagram photos and eloquent soliloquies of 140 characters or less. But worst of all, they have ensured that nobody will ever again complete a family meal without developing the glazed-over, absent-minded stare of one who has checked out of legitimate social interaction and entered the realm of social media. O tempora! O mores!

Yessir, we're in the information age, like it or not, and with that massive deluge of information comes the dumbing down of society to a level in which Baby is a smash hit, YouTube comment threads are the primary source of popular philosophical discourse, and Korean dudes prancing about in baby-blue suits are (I'm still not sure whether or not to take the whole phenomenon seriously).

So now that I've done my grouchy old conservative routine a bit, allow me to don a more philosophical hat and audaciously attempt to crack the problem.

Information and Knowledge

It seems that the perpetual problem facing denizens of the information age is the inability to differentiate information from knowledge. For one, knowledge, contrary to popular opinion, doesn't include trite facts about some celebrity's latest pregnancy or the ability rattle off some statistical analysis of a random intercollegiate Baseball/Football/Soccer/Quidditch rookie.

Plato, bless his heart, didn't really help the confusion when he defined knowledge as “justified true belief” way back in the day. Though perhaps the “bless his heart” is actually better aimed at modern philosophers, who have largely left the path of Socratic dialogue and have instead used the definition of “justified true belief” as a means of inquiring into the pressing question of whether Smith truly knows that Jones owns a Ford when the Ford that Smith thought Jones owns was actually stolen by aliens, dematerialized, and then replaced with a different model 5 minutes ago (no joke, it's called the Gettier problem).

Platonic intentions aside, under the current "justified true belief" theory of knowledge, if I believe that Kim Kardashian has dated way too many guys, if it is true that Kim Kardashian has dated way too many guys, and if I can give compelling reasons as to why Kim Kardashian has dated way too many guys, then I have knowledge that Kim Kardashian has, in fact, dated way too many guys. The tricky part about this theory is that it presumes that Kim Kardashian is actually a proper object of my knowledge, when, in reality, she is not. Not to be harsh on Kim or anything. But the proposition “Kim Kardashian has dated way too many guys,” once added to the great repository of trivial information that I call my mind, is absolutely useless. It does virtually nothing to enhance my understanding of my world (unless I believe in total depravity), and gives me nothing to apply to practical daily living.

Lest it seem like I'm ripping on Kim too much, the problem isn't actually that I'm talking about the Kardashians. The problem is that such random articles of information are fragmented. They come to us in tidbits and have not been unified into a comprehensive way of viewing the world (or even a particular aspect of the world). In antiquity, knowledge was never supposed to come to man in such disjointed random tidbits. It was supposed to provide a unified view of the world in order to draw one's soul towards the good so that he may understand how to live a flourishing human existence (and trust me, the Kardashians have absolutely nothing to do with that).

To restore the old-school conception of knowledge, I propose a couple of working definitions. Let's define information as raw facts, that is, those little propositional bits of data that float around the interwebz en masse. We'll define knowledge as an integrated understanding of a particular topic in which information is arranged and sorted into a meaningful (and accurate) conception of the subject which shapes the way we organize and evaluate experiences related to said topic.

If we have a bit of information that, say, there's an immigration bill being considered in Congress, then it stays at the realm of information and does not move to the realm of knowledge. If, however, we come to a unified understanding of the immigration bill, its effects upon American society, its relation to justice, and have begun making value judgments upon it, then we can say we have knowledge of the immigration bill (no, simply saying “I like Rubio, therefore, the immigration bill rocks” does not count as a legitimate value judgment).

I'd like to note that in order to come to knowledge of something, one has to actually devote himself to careful study of the object of knowledge. Unfortunately, with the average America attention span ever-decreasing (and the availability of Smartphones ever-increasing), this sophisticated endeavor (typically referred to as “learning something”) has gradually fallen out of favor, meaning that, on most topics, most Americans never make it past the information stage to the knowledge stage.

Pity. Because there's actually a third stage called “wisdom” and it involves putting that knowledge into practice so as to avoid being governed by one's passions and slipping into tyranny and stuff. Perhaps I'll save that bit for next week. And then later I'll pontificate about my theory as to why have such difficulty moving from the “information” to “knowledge” stage. But I'm running up against word count, and I'm running out of ideas to write columns on (seriously, email me if you have any thoughts,, so I'm trying to stretch this one out as long as possible.

Hopefully I've laid a bit of the groundwork for what I'm going to be ranting talking about the next couple weeks, so comment, share, like, and otherwise contribute to the amorphous blob of interwebz pseudo-knowledge in the manner of your choosing. And check in next week.

Posted by Nick Barden


  1. I think you are on to something, but you have to be careful with words. Words have meaning and it is a common problem among philosophers to wantonly create meaning were there was a perfectly sufficient one already there.

    That being said, to have knowledge is to know something. Webster's defines "knowledge" as "the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association."

    You can have full knowledge of something superfluous. That doesn't mean you are wise, it just means that you have knowledge of something.

    In short, I would say that the internet is full of knowledge (useful and not), but we have to find the the value for it to be any good.

  2. I reject your Webster's dictionary and substitute my own!

    No, but that's a legitimate point. I am using knowledge in a very specific way, one that would prompt objections from many philosophers. I think it's justified, though, when you reach back beyond the modern conception of knowledge to the classical idea that knowledge itself must be oriented towards some purpose, that is, it must have some end that it is trying to seek.

    I would like to note that I think people can have emerging knowledge of something. You don't have to have complete mastery over a subject to know something about it.