In this essay I draw a distinction between facts, information, knowledge and wisdom. I use the term information to mean a collection of facts. I use the term knowledge to mean the absorption and consideration of, experimentation with, and refinement of information; essentially the path to wisdom. Or to work backwards, wisdom is the mastery of knowledge which is the assimilation of information which is a compilation of facts. It might seem unnecessary to distinguish these differences but I believe its one thing to collect facts, quite another to understand how they matter to each other and something entirely different to begin to really know what you’re doing and how you’re doing it; let alone why.
are we past peak knowledge?
by aaron newton
This past weekend my little corner of the world experienced the coldest temperature ever recorded in the month of April in our area- 21 degrees Fahrenheit. Now in North Carolina we’re used to light frost until the middle of this month, but those of us who garden tend to catch spring fever a bit early when we have warm weather in March. This year we did and so I played my part and planted a few early tomatoes before it was really safe to do so.
In anticipation of this past weekend’s hard freeze I devised a plan to try and keep them alive. After bundling up my six daring garden tomatoes, I went inside and retrieved 3 sturdy seedlings. I took them out to the compost pile I built just last weekend. And as if to sacrifice them to the chilly winter goddess about to breeze into town, I left them atop my mountain of leaves and grass clippings. I was curious; could I effectively harness the heat of decomposition? And what happened you asked? The answer is nothing. Those tomato seedlings sat out all night and were completely unharmed. This means that the temperature 12 inches above the compost pile remained at least 10 degrees warmer than the ambient air temperature. I bet it was much warmer than that. I knew the compost pile was hot but I didn’t think I could just leave tomato seedlings lying around on it with temperature approaching 20 degrees in the rest of the yard. So I learned something, and I can promise you it’s not the ultimate extent of what I will know once I really begin to grasp this useful tool of wasted compost heat.
In our era, facts abound. Information of all sorts seems available everywhere and at anytime. If we want to know about how hot a compost pile can get or what the weather will be like tonight, that information is available to us in a way that makes us feel special. We think of ourselves as having more knowledge at our fingertips than any other generation of humans who have ever lived. But I’m not so sure this is true. Because while we can quickly gather facts and information about simple processes like composting or approaching weather patterns, we seem devoid of knowledge about how to use what we know. This glut of information might actually keep us from recognizing the resources of real knowledge available to us today. We seem to turn instead to an endless stream of hollow distractions in an effort to reschedule our relationship with the real world- so much effort to postpone our date with reality. (Knock, knock, someone’s at the door.)
In an extreme example of just how much we think we know and how badly we want to share it, we have even created a comprehensive system of appliances, connecting cables (sometimes for transmitting light) and even a system of satellites orbiting in space, all for the purpose of sharing large quantities of information quickly. Never mind that the (Inter)net result is largely the ability to look at nudie photos or track rumors about political candidates.
And while we consider ourselves the keepers of more information than any human beings have ever possessed before, it might soon be too late to ask our elders for real knowledge or travel to visit with others who have accumulated great wisdom. In the near future we might find ourselves too busy bailing water from the boat to sagaciously consider where it is headed. The truth is we might be approaching (or might have already passed) peak knowledge- the waterfall after which we will be less able to fully understand what we know or think we know. Peak knowledge could be right around the bend. Best we look up now and examine the reality of just what it is we understand.
I. Passing Wisdom
A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.
-Robert Anson Heinlein
For centuries human beings had a close relationship will the land. Our survival depended on an understanding of the natural systems that provided for our needs and wants. Food production was the principal task of the majority of human beings until a little less than two centuries ago. Most people who wanted to eat needed to know how to grow and gather food. I’m not speaking simply of the task of putting seeds in the ground and later harvesting dinner. The information surrounding agriculture takes a long time to learn and synthesize into wisdom. Planting has to be done at the right time, soil fertility has to be maintained, water has to be captured and transported, and harvested food has to be stored. Did I mention the knowledge concerning how to cook with fresh, whole ingredients? And how about practice of harvesting directly from nature. Far from simply being able to recognize the difference between edible and poisonous wild fare, during the majority of human history, people knew what grew where in the woodlands surrounding their homes. When did the trees and bushes fruit and how were their offerings best prepared. What about living with animals or hunting them? Do you have any idea how to raise and care for chickens? How to kill them and remove their feathers? Hunting a deer sounds easy enough (without bullets that is) but I wouldn’t know where to begin if you asked me to dress the meat or smoke it for later use. The knowledge necessary to ensure human beings get fed is extensive. The process of competently integrating it all together into a fully functioning system that meets the needs of a family sounds downright daunting to us, but such was the knowledge of most humans for thousands of years until real recently.
Many of us have been taught that farmers are backward, stupid folk who have little to offer in the way of wisdom but nothing could be further from the truth. Skilled farmers (who have a history of eating from both the field and from the forest) have a vast depth of knowledge. They understand how to work with natural systems in order to glean from nature’s surplus that which humans need to survive and thrive. For more than half a century though we have replaced reliance on this wisdom with a dependency on cheap fossil fuel inputs, pouring oil on the land as a substitute for the knowledge of how to work with it. As a result we have largely ignored the task of learning from our elders that which we will desperately need to know as the oil begins to run out. The average farmer is just under 60 years of age. We are in real danger of saying good bye to the last generation of Americans in whom this knowledge still survives. In fact because there are so few people alive today who can pass out this knowledge, we are in great danger of losing it or at least its widespread distribution even if we begin right now to pay attention to that which we do not know. Will our elders pass and with them will we lose much more knowledge than we have gained? What good is an understanding of nanotechnology when you and your family are hungry?
II. No Real Knowledge
Men have become the tools of their tools.
-Henry David Thoreau
Do we really know more today than we did several generations ago? In a scene from his documentary ‘Super Size Me’, a movie about the dangers of fast food and school lunches in America, Morgan Spurlock asks a group of Washington, D.C. tourists standing outside the White House if they know the Pledge of Allegiance. They can’t say the whole pledge correctly. But when asked about the ingredients in a Big Mac, they rattled them off singing, “Two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.” Watching this scene is disturbing because it typifies the tragic loss of knowledge we Americans have willingly undergone in recent history. This has happened not just because we have failed to respect and learn from what past generations knew (which we have done) but also because we’ve actively replaced learning sensible knowledge with watching infojunk. To say I am a harsh critic of television is putting it mildly. But my criticism comes from experience. Six years ago my wife and I gave up cable TV and two years ago we threw the idiot box out of our lives completely. After giving up the boobtube (funny how many degrading names we’ve given this appliance) we subsequently noticed several interesting consequences like recaptured hobby time, more engaged evening conversations and um… other activities. However one unintended and wonderful result has been the uncluttering of our minds. Free from the daily input of hours of mindless programming and countless television commercial (especially those political ads) we’ve actually had time to talk, read and think. Of course we have missed out on many attempts by ad agencies to brainwash us into thinking a hormone soaked meat paddy made from pesticide-fed cattle crammed into a factory farm, packaged in questionable conditions at one of our nation’s few meat processing facilities and served with tasteless vegetables between two slices of white bread is a good eatin’. But beyond sidestepping such propaganda I’ve noticed another positive development. Our new sources of information about the world range from intelligent conversation to books about interesting topics to walks in the woods near our home. We’ve moved from filling our minds with sound bites towards exploring the world around us. Even watching an hour long TV show about permaculture is no substitute for experimenting with ways to use hot compost piles to keep spring tomatoes warm. I believe the human mind is able to absorb and process and store information that compounds into wisdom. This is not done though by taking in hundreds of sound bites. It’s done through thoughtful engagement with the subject matter and is further refined through experimentation and conversation. These in-depth processes are given short shrift by the cursory explanations offered on television. Is it any wonder that in America our children have attention deficits? They are raised on a steady diet of TV shows that change ever thirty minutes and are peppered with propaganda teaching what to eat, what to wear and how to think. More television doesn’t mean more knowledge, it means less. It leaves no room for real knowledge.
III. Too Much Information
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
The Internet is not much better as a source of knowledge. “What a minute,” you say, “Didn’t you post this on the Internet?” True “The Web” can be a great source of information about everything from peak oil to building a Hugelkultur. But simply reading a How-To description or downloading images won’t provide a sensible understanding of how to actually build a Hugelkultur or why it works. The true knowledge of how it works only comes when such Internet information is put into action, tested, modified, refined, and stored in memory. All too often we use time on the Internet to keep up with the same sorts of sound bites that boom out of our televisions. And we forget that simply creating a vast network to share information is not the same as gaining more knowledge.
This system can also be used just as easily to transfer rumors or falsehoods. How many of us have been forwarded an email warning of the dangers of hypodermic needles at the gas pump or Nigerian business opportunities. How about the website that explains the Earth is only 6000 years old? But even when the content of certain emails or websites doesn’t contain out right lies or misinformation, it is still filtered first by those operating the site. Millions of Americans visit Matt Drudge’s website site each day. I know several who use it as their main source of newz. Many seem unaware of the fact that he picks mainly stories that support his particular political beliefs rather than more broadly and accurately pointing out the events of world news. Others argue U.S. main stream media doesn’t do a much better job. A quick spin around largely reputable websites outside of America will tell a different tale of the events happening on our globe. Yet these Drudge Report disciples believe that they are well informed because they read rewritten headlines, cherry picked articles by a rightwing gossipmonger. And let me be quick to say the same of those who get their newz strictly from The Huffington Report. Those who do so are inadequately informed about current events. Far more dangerous though is how sure they are of their worldly understanding.
Of course there’s also the oft pointed out fact that most of the top ten phrases searched for on Google contain the word “sex”. A friend of mine works for a company that makes and sells fiber optic cable used in the infrastructure of the Internet. He tells me he is well aware of the fact that his job is largely dependant on the pornography industry’s World Wide Web presence. There would be no heavy traffic on the information superhighway if the destinations accessible did not include many of lust and smut.
I think it is also important to point out that the wonderful world of computers could be made instantly useless by a widespread electrical blackout, a devastating virtual virus or large solar flares that could destroy large quantities of virtual knowledge in an instant. We rely on a technology that is at utterly dependant on cheap electricity transported over long distances, includes fragile, hard-to-build components and is subject to malicious attacks or government restrictions (just you wait, they are coming). How precarious this system seems when its weaknesses are examined and therefore how shaky our situation appears concerning all the knowledge we have tied up on our computers. What would you lose if it all suddenly went away?
Of course the Internet is a much more interactive source of information than that of television and it does have the capacity to teach basic ideas and share even complicated information between people all over the world. I believe it will prove an invaluable tool as human beings being to learn (or relearn) how to live in a world with fewer resources. It is however, more about information, the beginning of knowledge and understanding. It is a fabulous way to begin to learn, but it is no substitute for reading, or doing, or talking or taking classes or just watching the world around you.
IV. Far Fewer Teaching Travels
It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.
I regret not having studied abroad while I was at university. My wife did and she and I have travel to Europe once for a vacation, but I missed out on the opportunity to actively learn from another place and another culture. Stretching back into history, people have been traipsing all over the world, bringing home with them knowledge and an understanding of how other people lived and worked and played. These experiences predate fossil fuel powered travel. Even if (or when) the airplanes no longer connect America easily to the outside world, I imagine there will still be people traveling to distant lands to see what in the world it all looks like out there. But the numbers of such face-to-face encounters will most probably decrease. Spending days, weeks or months to travel over sea by ship or over land by rail will limit the ability of people to quickly meet and share knowledge in person. Several years ago I traveled by car (thanks to cheap gas) from Charlotte, NC to The Farm, an intentional community in Tennessee. There I spent the weekend learning hands-on about bamboo joinery, vegetarian cuisine, natural water purification systems and strawbale building. I met an architect whom later taught several strawbale workshops I attended closer to home. I have hopes to pay him in the future to travel to my area and help me to build my own home though such workshops. But travel for the physical exchange of knowledge will likely prove more difficult in an energy depleted future. Will we be able to share such comprehensive knowledge if we are limited in our contact to computers, letters and phones? As an aside, one of my biggest fears about the future is that we will lose the ability to understand people in other parts of the world because travel to distant locations will be difficult and happen less frequently. Will a decrease in knowledge about people far away bring back fear of unknown neighbors?
V. Burning the Books
Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.
There’s a saying- ‘It’s hard to learn by candle light.’ It refers to the idea that given a choice, is much easier to learn a new skill in a comfortable environment rather than in more difficult circumstances. Having access to information and time to develop the experience that underpins knowledge is a luxury that we take for granted. This is why childless, middle class twenty-somethings greatly out number poor, single mothers on the campuses of higher learning in our country. It’s not that poor, single mothers are incapable of learning and acquiring a degree, but they usually have many more responsibilities that keep them from being able to devote lots of time and energy to educational pursuits. Theirs is a life of making ends meet. Taking time out to focus on the future comes at the expense of meeting the needs of the present. We could find ourselves in this boat in the post carbon future. I can envision a world of more people slipping farther behind (some already are), having to work longer hours at more jobs to make ends meet. Such people will not have the necessary time to devote to learning new life skills. I only work four days a week in the formal economy and I share the responsibilities of caring for a one year old daughter with my stay-at-home wife and still I often find myself pressed to be able to learn as much as I would like. The sun sets too early and Monday comes to quick. I am trying to exit the formal economy entirely and enter into a more self sufficient way of meeting my family’s needs, and I am relatively lucky to have some time and money to focus on the task. Many other Americans will not be so lucky. They will find themselves saddled with financial burdens that require them to work more and the stress of such situations isn’t conducive to the uptake of new ideas; never mind the expense of paying for a 2 week long class on natural building techniques. I fear that in the future, instead of being able to spend time reading the books about how to transition away from the fossil fuel economy, many Americans will just be burning them to stay warm.
Will the last generation with a comprehensive understanding of natural systems die before we learn from them? Will we continue to stare blankly at the TV screen, wasting time while our future melts? Will we get lost on the information superhighway and envision e-relationships as a real substitute for sharing knowledge in our neighborhoods? Will we be stuck in place post peak petroleum, unable to travel to those who know what we really need to know? Will we too busy to stop and learn as change over whelms us with the job of staying afloat? Are we reaching the peak of American knowledge?
I fear so and I hope not.