Thursday, July 10, 2008

On Knowing

Explosions, music, and an existential dilemma. (warning, this post will likely be somewhat long winded and dry. The one directly below it is shorter and, arguably, wittier. feel free to skip)

So there I sat, on the lawn of the Hermann Park amphitheater, listening to the first lovely strains of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (and the less lovely strains of "Whut tha hell, I thought this wuz tha one with tha cannons 'n s%^$." from neighboring blankets) on a balmy July 4th evening. It was a lovely rendition...Houston is renowned for its symphony, opera, etc...the very best that money can buy, which is, of course, the local equivalent for quality and culture, but still does manage to produce some enjoyable opportunities if one happens to be able to afford it, or is willing to sit on the lawn on July 4th, drinking in the spilled-over largess of an economy flush with oil cash.

But back to the 1812. I had one of those..."hey, wait a moment" moments, as the piece continued, and strains of the French national anthem were put in counterpoint to the main theme. I'm certainly not new to the piece. Even those who have had little exposure to classical music have at least heard the final theme from the piece, as it is carted out every 4th alongside our other national songs. I guess I had never thought much of it until the French angle started to make me wonder.

Why was the french national anthem a counterpoint in a song of the War of 1812?

Yes, yes history majors, I see you with your hands up, straining to be called on. As you would no doubt point out with all due smugness, the war of 1812 overture is not about the American War of 1812. It's an anthem memorializing the Russian defeat of the French under Napoleon at such and such a battle that just happened to be in 1812, which, since it has nothing to do with Nascar, American Idol, or celebrity scandals, is probably lost on the collective knowledge of the vast majority of us. The main point being it has nothing to so with the U.S. history, and thus the French theme is very fitting for the piece.

So that, of course, begs the question, "why do we play it on our 4th of July celebration?"

A more cynical man than I would argue that it has something to do with "OMG DOOD, TEH CANNONZ!!! BLOWIN UP S%&^ IS AWESUM!!!".

And here is where this long winded posts take the turn from the random example to the more general concept it brought to light for me...

To find out this answer, I did what every curious person who has not been living under a rock in a cave in a remote region of Kazakhstan does.....I wiki'd it.

And of course, there were very logical historical and cultural explanations of the use of this song and how it became synonymous with the 4th, and so on, which I will not burden you with.

So, while that satisfied my curiosity, it got me thinking about Knowing, and how it has changed over the past couple hundred years. With Wikipedia, and the Internet in general, it seems more and more we are externalizing knowledge to great degree. This leads me to four interesting (at least to me) lines of thought about knowledge and how we interpret, use, and store it, and what it means for future generations

1) externalization of knowledge
This, as stated previously, is not a new concept. Nor is it a new phenomenon. Knowledge has undergone a continual process of externalization alongside the development of technologies. What once was oral tradition became bound in book...what once was in books and newspapers became broadcast through the ether in first telegraph, then radio, then television. Then the vast knowledge mother ship of the Internet became the next great leap forward, offering not only the mass-broadcast abilities of television, but the (relative) permanence and accessibility of books. With each subsequent step we have pushed more and more of what was once intimate and personal knowledge out into a more general societal pool. Some would argue that this is a liberation, that knowledge and information are no longer the tool and property of the elite, that it has prompted a Renaissance of egalitarian access to the tools of self-betterment. I would tend to agree, to an extent. But what makes me wonder is how this affects the balance of what we know personally, and what we know collectively. There's a great webcomic called "Luz, girl of the Knowing" about a young girl re-learning skills and natural knowledge for when society changes after "peak oil". It echoes the things I think about when I picture the skills my grandfather had, versus the skills I have. Our grandparents can learn to use the Internet, but how many of us can build a house? how many of us can even change our own oil?How many of us can do any of the myriad of domestic skills that were passed down from father to son, from mother to daughter but have now been externalized to a great collective degree? I have come to take pride when I learn to make some thing, or do something for myself, even if it might be easier to have Jiffy-lube change my oil, or buy a desk instead of making one from raw lumber. It seems to me that the things you create will always be of greater satisfaction than the things one consumes, but increasingly we have become a society built around the consumption, but not necessarily internalization, of knowledge.
Don't get me wrong, I love Wikipedia. But to some extent it is an intellectual crutch. And I think crutch really is the right word, because a crutch is both a useful tool, but also can be something that is leaned on unnecessarily. There is no real need to KNOW things in an increasingly interconnected world, when a 20 second search on wikipedia can supply you with the collected knowledge of the world on any given subject. As technological progress increases exponentially, it makes me wonder when the line between personal and collective knowledge will finally blur into non-existence. Will I have a direct connection to wikipedia or its successors, allowing instant mental access to the world's databases? At that point, where do I stop, and the collective begin? Is that the next real step in our evolutionary process?

2) the abandonment of knowledge
To me, hand in hand with the externalization of knowledge is what seems to be a broader abandonment of knowledge. Human eyesight is failing. The genetic disability of poor sight, which once selected against an individual for survival and passing on one's genetic material, is now a simple matter corrected by technology. I thought through my immediate family, and realized besides my sister and myself, everyone I know wears glasses or contacts, or has at some point. The exception has become the rule. While I do not bemoan this, it is a pretty poignant example of the principle I see at work with knowledge. As we externalize more and more of what we know, it is easier and easier to get by with not knowing. I do not need to know how to spell, I can auto-correct. I do not need to read book X, I can get the wiki summary in 30 seconds. I do not need to carry in my head the wealth of memories that form a life...they're all neatly frozen in thousands of digital pictures and blog entries and myspaces and facebooks, etc. With our increasing interconnected access to knowledge and our externalization of knowledge, it makes me wonder to what degree the liberation of the individual from the burden of Knowing also has its darker side in producing a society of, for lack of a better image than the cliche bee colony, become a hive mind, with each individual being reduced to the level of drone. At what point do the advances in the diffusion of knowledge enable the individual to devolve. What is the fine line between the technological crutch as a necessary tool, and as a personal hindrance? It seems like the externalization of, and access to, knowledge gives vastly improved possibilities for the individual for self-edification. But I question whether that will be the outcome. As pessimistic as it may sound, we are, for the greater part, a culture, and perhaps even a species, that seeks comfort. That seeks the easier path. Certainly we laud the individuals who eschew this to seek challenge, but i question whether that's the exception or the rule. If it's the exception, than I fear the externalization of knowledge will lead to individuals who rely far more on the collective, and far less on themselves, and for whom abandonment of personal knowledge becomes the norm.

3) the dilemma of the dilution of knowledge
I use the term dilution in a very very cautious way. I know judgement of the quality of knowledge is an inherently subjective thing. Even to measure how much (quantity) someone knows bears a certain degree of subjective assumption, but as to the quality of that knowledge, that is certainly a debatable point. So when I speak of dilution, please hear me out before attaching a negative connotation to that word.
This is the age old dilemma between the elitism of maintaining that knowledge is best kept and propagated by experts, and the egalitarianism of saying knowledge is the property of the masses.
but I should explain how I get to that dilemma. With the externalization of knowledge comes greater access to it. Half a millenium ago, one was elite if able to read and perhaps in possession of a few books. A hundred years ago, most people did not attend university. Twenty years ago specialized knowledge (law, medicine, etc) was still very much the property of those who had invested goodly amounts of time in studying it. Even 15 years ago, discussions between groups of any size on a given topic were fairly limited by geography and communication means (i.e. prior to internet chat/BB's/forums/etc) for most people. now that has changed. Anyone can access medical information. Anyone can access legal advice, carpentry tips, engineering principles.

But, you say, that doesn't make them a doctor, a lawyer, a carpenter, or an engineer. And you are correct, and in that principle lies the heart of what I'm getting at. As knowledge and Knowing becomes more of a communal, collective thing, how does that affect the quality of the information...and how does the "real" knowledge get lost in the haze of uncertainty, like a cloud of electrons around an atom, when it is no longer the only voice, but one among a chorus. In technical fields, one may discuss a broadcast signal in terms of a signal/noise much of the real signal do you get, compared to distractions, junk noise, etc. This is, of course, a these terms there is a known, "real" signal, and an objective way of measuring its strength. While the same basic principle applies to knowledge, it is a far less direct comparison, as what is the "real signal" is less certain. But the concept to consider may be explained by these examples.

I receive chain mail all the time. Everything from the latest dire warnings rooted in urban legends "Don't mix pop rocks and soda, you'll blow up", "fluoride is poisoning our children!!", etc, to political mud slinging, etc. With the exception of such shining cities on a hill as, there really isn't a counter to the misinformation of the internet era. Urban legends, and propaganda ranging from topics of politics to race, flood the interwebs. This is the counterpoint to the liberation of access to knowledge and the means of production thereof. The downside to the admittedly vast benefits. And here is where the elitist v populist dilemma comes into play.

In more traditional knowledge regimes, the "folklore" (old wives tales, gossip, propaganda) was separated to a greater degree (the effects of deliberate efforts by political and economic powers notwithstanding) from the realm of "rational knowledge"...(medicine, law, science). Without drawing any quality judgements, you had two slightly overlapping ways of knowing. However, there were checks and balances inherent, to some degree in the less liberated flow of information. With the advent of this greater access and externalization of knowledge, some of those traditional barriers are broken down. The modern folklore (the urban legend email, the political propaganda) becomes part of the same mix as the "fact" (again being very wary of such absolute terms). A greater number of voices in the knowledge marketplace means a great cacophony of sound....a greater noise aspect to a "true" signal. With a vastly expanded number of potential sources of information, there is less concentration of reliance on a single source as a common reference point. While this is certainly advantageous in terms of some of the more negative aspects of traditional hegemonic propagation of strict norms, it does, like all other principles here, have a flip side. Look up any medical condition, and you will get sites like the AMA, but you will also get a host of alternative medicine sites, etc. While not drawing a conclusion about which way of knowing is the correct one, the issue really is the increasingly difficulty of sorting through a vast sea of knowledge. As more and more voices get access, more and more versions of the truth become available. While this is great in terms of debate over philosophical issues, etc, it can be problematic in terms of things that are more rooted in fact, like science. There are real facts involved, in,say, the fluoridation of water. But anyone can start a website that selectively and improperly cherry picks fragments of information and weaves them into a tale that would have you shuddering to drink tap water. For the average consumer, the lack of a singular opinion becomes problematic in terms of sorting through the vastly expanded body of knowledge to find an answer. This is the dilution of the body of knowledge. Please do not take from this a negative tone to this discussion, I am simply interested in sifting through the potential issues that accompany the admittedly great benefits of greater access to collective knowledge.

4) the death of mystery
This is perhaps the most interesting of the four themes, and hopefully if anyone has made it through to this point, they will continue here.
Along with that externalization comes the need to never not know, at least on anything but the most obscure or esoteric knowledge. 10 years ago, it would have taken a great deal more effort to get my 1812 overture answered. 10 years before that, perhaps even more. At some point, i would have been content in NOT knowing. It is not irony that has died in the new era, but mystery. And it seems knowledge has become a drug in its absence. The 24 hour news cycle, then endless political speculation, the obsession with the lives of the famous, the endless debates on the internet, no mystery can be left unsolved, no thing unknown, to the point of obsession. Is the ability to not know of equal important to the ability to know? To be able to be content with not knowing certain things that are not vital? Given the rapid externalization of knowledge, and this obsession with rooting out and labeling every potential piece of knowledge, it gives the feeling of (though no negative implications intended) a virus. Consumption becomes its own end, but it serves no purpose as the product thereof is not held in memory, but shunted out to external data storage. of course this is a one-sided view, but in the wonderful forward march of human knowledge, it does interest me to see what has fallen dead at the side of the road. Perhaps it is just a personal me, the unknown holds a certain appeal...the intellectual thrill of something beyond the border of knowledge, the freedom to imagine. When I was a child we played in the woods. There were no strategy guides, nor websites devoted to it like a video game or sport, it was full on, raw imagination. When we played out any given make believe scenario, we lived in a world of possibility, and that possibility was in and of itself appealing. When we were done for the day, our memories were our own. And they lived and died with our ability to hold on to them ourselves. They were not quickly shunted to a blog (IRONY), or part of a regimented and rigidly controlled activity. They were not shaped by discussion from a thousand other kids on a chatroom, and held to an image propagated by an increasingly ubiquitous media presence. They were raw, and they were ours, and they were surrounded and buoyed on all sides by a generous degree of NOT knowing. And the void of not knowing became filled by our creations, rather than the consumption of someone else's knowledge. And there, to me, lies the heart of the lack of mystery...the lack of space or inclination to set foot in new territory, and fill it with one's own ideas. The freedom to not be hemmed in by fences of accepted and universally upheld ideas, but to find and inhabit a place of one's one. On a broader scale, I can't help but wonder what this means for true innovation in the coming decades, not just in technology, but in human thought.

Thank you for reading my pretentious ramble. It was written all in one short sitting, so please excuse grammar, and lack of properly structured arguments. Just the ideas rattling around in my head on a slow day.

As a reward, here are some fireworks to accompany the 1812 story:

Hermann Park Fireworks 4

Hermann Park Fireworks 3

Hermann Park Fireworks 6

Hermann Park Fireworks 7


stanford said...

Assuming the Kwisatz Haderach (which comically I looked up on the Wiki) thing is a fabrication the Obama delegate thing is really impressive. Good for you.

To the epistemology post, I think mostly, yes. The externalization of knowledge has led to (or is the result of) specialization that tends to diminish humanity. The dilution of knowledge is particularly dangerous in a democratic state where the average individual is asked to pick between complex economic, social and political visions. Sometimes I feel like taking some economics classes just to be qualified to vote.

I might argue, though, that externalizing the function of storing knowledge is existentially helpful. By worrying less about maintaining a cranial warehouse of facts (since they can be easily accessed at any time) I have more freedom to imagine and experience. Knowledge becomes less of a commodity and more of an experience.

JMBower said...

No argument there. i think, as with all things, there is a balance between shedding excess facts, and becoming reliant on external storage for knowledge in general. The benefits of externalizing and disseminating information are unassailable. I was just riffing a bit on what happens in that wake.

I can't believe someone actually read that rambling mess of a post:)