The Information Superhighway Is a Dead End
On Elmo, the internet, and wisdom
Our almost-two-year-old is all about Elmo at the moment. Well, Elmo and Frozen, but Elmo usually takes precedence. Frankly, I’m grateful. We’ve found a few long compilations of Elmo’s World and other Elmo-centric content on YouTube, and it’s pretty great as far as kids programming goes. Having not really watched any Sesame Street since I was a child myself, I wasn’t sure what to expect out of modern Elmo. But our daughter enjoys him, and I figure there’s a lot less educational entertainment she could be watching, so we’ll take it!
My only problem with Elmo is the point in the program at which he summons his smartphone named “Smartie.” In any given episode, Elmo summons Smartie the smartphone to learn more about the topic at hand. Upon summoning Smartie, Elmo says, “Hey Smartie, Elmo wants to learn more about [topic].” To which Smartie replies, “Well, what do we do to learn something new?” Followed by the two of them together saying, “We…LOOK IT UP!”
I mean, look, I get it. I’ve learned plenty of random facts about movies or geography with a random Google search while watching something or traveling to a new place. But I’ve always been a bit averse to the idea that we learn things by searching about them on the internet. It feels…shallow. Are we learning when we look things up, or are we just looking them up? I suppose we “learn” about the population of Alaska if we look it up to settle an argument and then we can recall the population later in a conversation without having to look it up. But how often are we able to recall information we research on a whim? Are we learning or referencing? Isn’t there a difference?
In November, The Atlantic published an essay called “The Singularity Is Here” with the deck, “Artificially intelligent advertising technology is poisoning our societies.” Naturally, I was intrigued. It begins like this:
Something unnatural is afoot. Our affinities are increasingly no longer our own, but rather are selected for us for the purpose of automated economic gain. The automation of our cognition and the predictive power of technology to monetize our behavior, indeed our very thinking, is transforming not only our societies and discourse with one another, but also our very neurochemistry. It is a late chapter of a larger story, about the deepening incursion of mercantile thinking into the groundwater of our philosophical ideals. This technology is no longer just shaping the world around us, but actively remaking us from within.
Speaking to my heart here.
The author of the essay, Ayad Akhtar writes later:
As a writer, it seems to me that the most baleful development in our collective contemporary life is the preponderance of a practice derived from digital technology that treats knowledge and information as synonymous. For while the way to wisdom leads through knowledge, there is no path to wisdom from information. Especially when that information is being used as a training treat in what has come to feel like a wholesale attempt at permanent reeducation.
“While the way to wisdom leads through knowledge, there is no path to wisdom from information.” Brilliant.
We can access endless amounts of information online, and that’s great! We can even come to know that information so that maybe we don’t have to access online anymore. But knowledge and information are not synonymous. The information superhighway of the internet cannot lead to wisdom because it doesn’t even lead to true knowledge, which is the foundation for wisdom. If the internet accidentally led us to wisdom it would be a self-defeating enterprise because we would use it less moving forward. The architectures of the busiest hubs of online life are designed to make us reliant on them, not free us from them, and exposure to wisdom (opposed to knowledge) would expose this reality. It is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave on a global scale.
The information superhighway is a dead end, almost always leading us to rely more on itself than making us independent thinkers. It does not lead to wisdom. True wisdom must be found elsewhere. Perhaps in a Person, even. The narrow road to Wisdom may be difficult to walk, but it does not lead to a dead end. It leads to true life.