The internet is, like the printing press and papyrus before it, “a good thing”. Yet, it seems that this quantum leap in our ability to access information comes at a cost that we have yet to value fully. The reasons for this are interesting.
We in the West are only slowly beginning to grasp that our love of rationality and factual knowledge, and the remarkable comforts it seems to have brought, is happening at the expense of other equally vital aspects of our nature such as ethics, memory and common sense.
Thinkers from fields as diverse as art, politics, psychology and neuroscience are beginning to realise that all information – useful or otherwise – is processed and understood in an emotionally charged context. Human beings are inherently social creatures and so one of the most vital sources of emotional charge lies in the way we relate to other people. Emotions are, after all, social events. The way in which our emotions modulate and even control the conclusions that we draw from furnished data are complex processes that we do not really understand.
The debate about the pros and cons of the information age, therefore, is also a reflection of the hazardous imbalance between information and context. Notice how, when the topic of the drawbacks of our search systems as they presently stand arise – such as the easy access to deadly knowledge or the possibility that some of the ‘stuff out there’ may be dishonest – those advocating technology as our saviour are quick to describe our current systems as similar to a library or a very large book. In so doing, they implicitly endorse the view that information obtained and used in a vacuum is of little value. Oscar Wilde put this succinctly when he said, “an unbiased opinion is of no use to anybody.”
What is striking about so many of the debates that confront us in these interesting times is how they bewilder us with their apparent irreconcilability. We know that small shops and businesses, with their vital element of ‘community spirit’ are a good thing, yet most of us choose to shop at Tesco or Sainsbury. We know mental illness can be crippling, yet we often talk of those affected as pathetic and lazy. We like to talk of the tension between autonomy and paternalism as though it might one day be resolved.
In fact, an irreconcilable conflict exists between two incompatible views of the universe: one governed by facts and numbers, the other determined by relationships and values. Until our information systems are smart – and human – enough to create a convincing illusion of values as well as facts, the living, listening, nodding, caring alternative – enshrined in the role of the expert healer in every culture on the planet – will be around for a long time to come.
Image credit: JasonBrown2013