The New York Times offers this piece by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who argues that, contrary to the skeptics, wringing our hands about new communications technology is really a bit silly. Google does not make us stupid. The internet, email, and Twitter do not fragment our attention spans. In fact, these new ways of accessing and managing information have led to a proliferation of discoveries and advances in the sciences as well as the humanities. He concludes with this remarkable sentence:
Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.
Well, it’s a comfort knowing that we are so smart. But isn’t is at least puzzling that many of the problems we face today, from the oil spill in the Gulf, to global warming, from obesity, to pollution, are the result of us “smart” people doing dumb things?
Although, Pinker might object, it seems the poet might offer some insight into this conundrum. Here is T.S. Eliot from Choruses from “The Rock.”
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.
A little farther, we read this:
What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Perhaps we’re not as smart as Pinker thinks. If not, the first step is to admit our ignorance. To recognize limits to our knowledge and thereby to admit of limits to our ambitions. We will thrive not by dominating our surroundings but by stewarding well this creation of which we are but a part. The way to wisdom passes through the low gate of humility and is fully realized only in the context of healthy communities.
h/t Jason Peters