Information is Everywhere and Everywhere We are Ignorant


The US National Geographic Society published a survey of geographic literacy. This international survey of young people in the US and either other countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, and Britain—asked 56 questions about geography and current events. The organization’s survey discovered that about 87% of Americans, aged 18 to 24, the prime age for military service, could not place Iraq on the map. Americans could find on average only seven of the 16 countries in the quiz. Only 71% of the surveyed Americans could locate the Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest body of water.

John Farley, president of the National Geographic Society, thought that these results reflect something deeper than lack of geographic knowledge. He referred to the “apparent retreat of young people from a global society in an era that does not allow such luxury.” This survey occurred over 10 years ago.

Fahey said that this “generation is highly skilled in what they want to block out and what they want to know.” “Unfortunately, the things they block out seems to include knowledge of the world we all live in.” One can also assume that the inability to locate Iraq on a world map means that these students know next to nothing about Middle Eastern culture and politics or anything much about Islam.

Are we staring a giant paradox in the face? Visionaries tell us that we now live in an information age, indeed an age of info-glut. Yet the students living in the world’s most powerful and lethal country do not have much of a clue about the world out there. The US invaded Iraq (and other Middle East places too). Not many Americans know where Iraq is, let alone that their government used to support Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. And they have little idea about what their government is actually up-to on the geo-political scene as it desperately seeks to remain the hegemonic, exceptional nation in a multi-polar world.

Celebrating uncritically the information age tells us very little about whether we as citizens and ordinary people are, in fact, becoming more knowledgeable and skilled in the managing of our personal and collective affairs. In his prescient essay, “Science as vocation,” Max Weber wrote of the “process of intellectualization” that had been grinding onward for thousands of years.

In his view, the “increasing intellectualization” did not “indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which we live our lives. It means something else, namely the knowledge or belief that if one but wished, one could learn at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.” The Stone Age savage knew more, tacitly and explicitly, about the ground of their being than we do in our deracinated world.

Information is, indeed, everywhere and everywhere we are ignorant. The reasons for our deep ignorance are many and c0mplex. But I think that there are several lines of inquiry that may help to illuminate this paradox. With the emergence in North America (and spreading elsewhere) of a high intensity consumerist society over the last 80 years or so, we have become increasingly less self-reliant. The driving force of the high intensity consumer society (which takes the “fetishism of commodities” to new heights) teaches its inhabitants to “learn to consume.” And that’s about it.

All the resources of this societal form—from primary schooling to telecommunications—are marshalled in this great learning project: to undermine our self-reliance and know-how. Everything is to be provided for us; everything is to be thought for us; everything is decided for us; everything is packaged to amuse us to death. We are being returned to the pre-enlightenment state of Kant’s “self-incurred immaturity.”

With the spread of urbanization, curative medicine and schooling, Andre Gorz (Paths to Paradise: on the liberation from work [1985]) suggests, “popular know-how on which self-reliance was based” is disappearing. We can’t treat common complaints and illnesses, we have lost the art of cooking, and we don’t know how to make our own furniture, care for children or keep fit. Rather, the consumer society is not at all organized to keep us healthy. The average supermarket is full of food that contributes to ill health, obesity and illness.

The store owners don’t place signs around their store saying, “eat this at your own peril.” Their stores aren’t designed as knowledge-intensive food emporiums. Chocolate products do not carry the warning that the cocoa beans were produced with slave labour in West Africa. Fair trade pedagogies make but a wee dent in our discombobulated understandings.

In a society where everything is done for you, where we suffer from historical amnesia, lose the ability to see connections between what we eat and where it was produced and under what conditions, believe what is presented to us, live in a confused fog day after day, where we are subjected to endless propaganda, it is easy to see how we remain deeply ignorant in the age of information.

The consumer society is designed to separate those who consume from those who make the big decisions about the way the world runs. We the citizenry are supposed to allow the experts in corporate and governmental worlds to make the decisions for us as we get on with the ordinary activities of fulfilling our heart’s desire in the commodity paradise. Increasingly, the role of the mass media is to massage our minds and spur our cravings for more and more.

This system is, however, leaky and flawed. The masses may well be drugged on unscientific myths and half-baked religious ideas, popular culture and uncritical patriotism. But the knowledgeable, critically engaged citizen exists in pockets here and there; one might even argue that the pockets are growing deeper. The alternative media may hover on the sidelines, but it is present.

In the run-up to the war on Iraq in the winter of 2003, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of the world’s cities, small and great, shouting out their heart cry against the devastations of war. And there are many brilliant people (and those ordinary persons living in smashed-up societies) around who actually do know much about the how the great powers operate in the world (Hint: it has nothing to do with morality).

This may be encouraging, it seems to be, but what needs careful analysis is why it is so difficult in the information age to be wise about what is actually going on in the world. Clearly the simple availability of information does not make us knowledgeable. Our great cities are full of absolutely lovely writings on every crisis everywhere in the world. These drops of consciousness could make an ocean sometime. Now, however, crises tumble out everywhere and none of them seem to get addressed, let alone solved. We live in the age of stupid.

I am boxed in with the nagging thought that critical thought, itself, can simply circulate through its own channels without ever having much to do with how power holders actually make decisions about which forest get logged, which government is overthrown or which box retail stores comes to your little town. I can say this all the while proclaiming almost in the same breath that our moral consciousness has its power to stop the invasion of the barbarians.

Nor does our knowledge of what is going on in the world—there are 800 million malnourished people in the world, one of half of humanity lives in poverty, one billion are illiterate, a billion and a half have no access to safe water and two billion have no electricity—necessarily result in action to alleviate suffering. Why does this data leave the West mainly cold?

An even more perplexing paradox ought to trouble the conscience of those who are proposing that we live in a knowledge society, namely the dispiriting US (and Western liberal democracy allies) responses to genocide in the twentieth century. Writing in the London Review of Books, Stephen Holmes (2002) observes that no US troops were dispatched or UN reinforcements authorized to stop the Rwanda massacres. No US high-level governmental meetings were held to discuss non-military options. No public condemnations were uttered. No attempt was made to expel the genocidal government’s representatives from the Security Council, where Rwanda held a rotating seat at the time.

This depressing reality confronts us with (at least) three questions. To what extent does the ignorance of the Western public (however this occurs), preoccupied with fulfilling its private desires in the commodity paradise, actually permit the governing bodies to act immorally in the world? How do we understand the bitter truth that knowing can be so radically divorced from action in the information age? Have we become incapable, somehow, of actually feeling what we know?

Our suspicion thus far has been that the actually existing information age, or information society, privileges a calculating quantitative mentality among its participants and its theorists. To know is to have access to more bits of information only pertinent to expanding the rationality of the market.

But in his illuminating book, Return to Reason (2001), philosopher Stephen Toulmin argues that we need to balance “reason” (scientific forms of knowing) and “reasonableness” (practical forms of knowing). Several considerations follow from this call for balance.

First, the designing of the just learning society would not privilege technical-instrumental forms of reasoning to the exclusion of other forms of knowing (Habermas’s critical insight, endlessly present in his works).

Second, the “scientific way of knowing” would still be deeply respected, its spirit of critique valued for its potential to clear away the “unfounded customary and traditional assumptions that lie in the path to true knowledge” (R. Tallis, Enemies of Hope: a critique of contemporary pessimism [1997]).

This latter affirmation needs urgent attention. More than ever, men and women’s lives are being transformed by the applications of science (genetics, etc.) and technology at the same time as citizens are becoming less and scientifically literate. In fact, an anti-science and anti-enlightenment sensibility actually pervades the Academy in the social sciences and humanities. How has this come to be?

Outside the Academy, aggressive and irrational forms of religion have their tight grip on the minds, hearts and emotions of millions of people in and outside the West. Fundamentalisms—Islam, Christian, Hindu and Jewish—are flourishing throughout the world. These apocalyptic, dogmatic belief systems close their followers’ minds to rational discussion or any discussion at all. Daring to know is forbidden.

Truth is declared from the High Mountain; submit don’t deliberate. Dogmatic religious forms fuel and mobilize aggressive, military spiritual energy oriented to destroying the unbeliever. Dazzling philosopher Wendy Brown (“American nightmare: the neoliberalism, neo-conservatism, and de-democratization” [2006]) argues that “neo-conservatism does valorize power and statism, and when these energies are combined with the moralism and the market ethos, and when a public is molded by the combination of these energies and rationalities, a fiercely anti-democratic political culture results.”

Now is not the time to make silly and thoughtless denunciations of the global scientific enterprise. The Left Humanist educational project must consider how various societies actually function (or could) to increase our scientific literacy, enlarge the possibilities of technical artistry in all dimensions of our lives, nurture practical wisdom in our deliberations with each other, and increase our collective wisdom.

Increased wisdom emerges from the considered interplay of the three Aristotelean primary modes of knowing (episteme [formal abstract theory], techne [techniques to master practical problems] and phronesis [practical skills such as performed in clinical medicine, sailing or moral discourse]).

It is inconceivable, for example, that our species could solve the problem of holes in the ozone layer without the products of scientific thought and technological artistry. But when moral wisdom (pertaining to what is right for all) evaporates, we don’t even recognize there is a hole in the first place.

If sources of wisdom, Sophia, dry up the baleful impulses inherent in an instrumental-rationality detached from and colonizing other forms of knowing, will continue on their destructive way.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.