Change in the Age of Information – Part 4 Information and Knowledge

Sometimes the importance of a topic doesn’t become apparent immediately. Almost two months ago, part 1 of this series started with the quote, “The age of information is not the age of understanding” and it was only last week that I came across a related quote from the James Hillman book The Soul’s Code. Despite being written over 20 years ago, it rings truer today than ever:

“Our republic should learn this lesson, for we might one day vote into power a hero who wins a giant TV trivia contest and educate our children to believe the Information Superhighway is the road to knowledge. If one clue to psychopathy is a trivial mind expressing itself in high-sounding phrases, then education emphasizing facts rather than thinking, and patriotic, politically or religiously correct “values“ rather than critical judgment may produce a nation of achieving high school graduates who are also psychopaths.” (p. 225)

Hillman’s comments bring into focus something that subsequent parts of this series explored through the example of two major figures in the tech field: Elon Musk and Linus Torvalds. Their focus on facts and information to the point of excluding human nature and cultural trends put them both in difficult situations professionally making them seen to the casual observer almost psychopathic.

In today’s world everyone has access to a major percentage of human knowledge from a pocket sized device. As a result, facts have lost much of their broader value. They lose even more value when the effects of false, manipulative “facts” are added to the equation. Fake news, manipulative advertising, misleading product reviews, the “attention slot machine” of social media, filter bubbles, and the predominately negative bias of news outlets can all contribute to a certain level of psychopathy in even healthy individuals.

In fairness to Hillman, The Soul’s Code is actually an extremely positive book about the unique potential inherent in every human being which is reflected in its tagline, “In Search of Character and Calling.” However as a Jungian, Hillman cannot help but explore the negative side of his topic as well and the above quote is from a chapter called The Bad Seed. He builds on this idea in a subsequent chapter called Mediocrity where he eventually exposes three seemingly great people as mediocre due to their blind faith in their deeply held belief systems, i.e. the “facts” that make up their personal beliefs. Hillman’s conclusion that their faith that moved mountains became its own shadow is cited as evidence of how Americans in particular use belief as an excuse to not exercise critical judgment.

So what benefits can understanding and critical judgement provide that allow facts to regain their value? Hillman gives one clue by emphasizing their importance in allowing acceptance of “exceptional” individuals and thereby transforming conformance into the dangerous mindset. One positive benefit of this could be to reduce the tendency of popular culture to hold exceptional people (like Musk and Torvalds) to impossibly high standards. Should their questionable behavior be excused? No, but it should also not result in the glorification of “uninspired mediocrity.”

For example, the previous post in this series summarized the next steps Torvalds is taking in his personal development where his passion for his work and some concrete actions he is taking have gone a long way to making up for his behavioral shortcomings. As for Musk, in an interview he gave this week for ReCode, he gave some positive signs of developing the same understanding. The interviewer, Kara Swisher, explains in her summary of their conversation:

My favorite response [of Musk] showed he did understand those issues and his “self-inflicted wounds”: “Yeah, there’s no question there’s, like, self-inflicted wounds. In fact, my brother said, “Look, if you do a self-inflicted wound, can you at least not twist the knife afterwards?” You stabbed yourself in the leg. You don’t really need to twist it in your leg. Why do that?”

While this statement seems like Musk is making needed corrections, another of his comments casts some doubts. When the interviewer asks, “What I’m trying to get to is, do you want to acknowledge when you do this it does set off … People beyond you that listen to you, you have a fan base that’s quite rabid, I would say.” Musk simply responds, “No, I wouldn’t say that.” A categorically untrue statement since he is constantly setting off his fan base with everything from massive rocket launches to fully self driving supercars to selling 20,000 flamethrowers. Hopefully he will continue to work to find a way to balance his exceptionalism with understanding and critical judgement.

What about the rest of us that, as Hillman colorfully describes, “pass our time sheltered under the middle bulge of the bell curve,” what can we do to express our exceptionalism? Maybe it doesn’t seem like much, but to me an internal attitude of integrity, excellence, and critical judgment in my environment goes a long way toward “changing mediocrity from a term of contempt into a concept of value.” And if that’s not enough, I recommend reading The Soul’s Code for an additional 286 pages of exceptional exploration and guidance!