Was the Industrial Age of the 20th century a golden era of relative intelligence where understanding of the world outpaced its growing complexity?
Did the Digital Age of the 21st century usher in a new Dark Age of relative ignorance when the complexity of the world outpaced the broad-based ability to understand it?
The Twentieth Century did seem to be a special period in history where broad-based social intelligence and collective knowledge grew significantly faster than the complexity of the world with which we interacted. In essence, we were learning more about the world faster than ‘the world’ could make stuff for us to learn. Communications media matured from “print and soap boxes” to radio, television and the Internet and basic education was no longer the exclusive domain of the elite, but grew to universality. The secrets and mysteries of the how the world actually worked revealed themselves not just to a few mavens and wizards, but the population of humankind as a whole.
The Digital Revolution changed all that. Computers accelerated the growth of what there was to know about the world as those electronic processors fuelled a spike in discovery and innovation. Moreover, these revelations did not sit tucked away in laboratories and universities, but those same digital technologies also opened the flood gates which inundated the the population with that new found “knowledge”. The fire hose flood of information from an anarchic, randomly curated media overwhelmed most peoples’ ability to cope with it. Toffler’s prophetic Future Shock has arrived.
I first posted about the “Dark Ages of Black Boxes” half a decade ago and since then have posted 53 pieces about the dynamic I have observed. The analysis of 2016 political tsunamis of the Brexit referendum and Trump election have echoed many themes about the pending “dark ages”.
This gap between “Knowledge” and “Knowing” is quite starkly illustrated by plotting the trajectories (see graph above) of (a) patents issued according to US Patent Activity (“knowledge”), and (b) average years of schooling in the population (“knowing”). In the 1920s, schooling started a decades long run of outpacing discovery until the end of the century when the Information Age turbo-charged an unprecedented inflection point of discovery.
KNOWLEDGE EXPLOSION – I need to make clear that I am not talking about the often heralded “dumbing down” of the population. Instead, it is more of a “complicating up” of daily life. In fact, I would argue that people as a collective have never been smarter. Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” documents the steady maturation of the world’s outlook on its fellow human beings and planet itself:
- “Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.”
Rise of Education – By any measure, the 20th century has been nothing short of an education revolution. Driven by the need for a more methodical workforce dealing with unnatural (ie. mechanical) objects, education has become the norm across the world, certainly the Western world. “Global Rise of Education” by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser is an excellent overview.
Rise of Mass Media – Education doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door. Mass media and the Internet have delivered boundless information, reference material and tutorials to our fingertips. Much of what is being decried today as ignorant political debate is actually quite well informed.
Unfortunately, as “Global Literacy Rates” chart (below) illustrates, mankind is starting to hit a saturation point for basic education and literacy. Once 100% have it, you can’t grow aggregate smarts by getting more people educated…only by getting people educated more. Hard education – not just “readin” but critical thinking, not just “rithmatic” but statistics and predicate logic.
COMPLEXITY – The two century period between Newton and Einstein could be dubbed the “Age of How Stuff Works”. The two titans deciphered and articulated some of the most fundamental rules and building blocks of the universe from “for every action there is an opposite but equal reaction” to “E=mc2”. But then things got interesting. Multidimensional string theory, multiverses, incompleteness theorem, chaos theory, irrational economic actors were all just some of the counter-intuitive discoveries of advanced research. It turns out that the world was much more complicated than the mechanical explanations of billiard balls knocking against each other. Comprehending these new concepts, many of which were essential to the latest breakthroughs in technology, required not only much deeper education, but also a unnatural dexterity of thinking that the human brain wasn’t organically evolved to process.
Technology Revolution – Until personal computers arrived, automobiles were the most complex and expensive piece of technology owned by the masses. Built on mechanical engineering principles, a few lectures in a Driver’s Ed class taught most people enough to troubleshoot basic breakdowns (eg. if steam was coming out of a hose, then try to patch that hose). People didn’t hesitate to pop open the hood/bonnet to take a look at the engine to see what they could see. But today, if your iPhone or computer screen goes blank, you wouldn’t think of unscrewing the back to take a look inside.
As it happens, even our cars are becoming more like our computers every day. More and more opaque amalgams of technological complexity. Even my expert mechanic is now sending me to the car manufacturer to service half my car problems because he is not equipped to handle the on-board systems which affect so much of the car’s operation. Andrea Busnelli recently reported that a typical new car today has “100 million lines of code” and “this number is planned to grow to 200-300 millions in the near future” (see graph below).
Big Data – What there is to know in the world today is pretty much unknowable. At one point, one could conceivably plow through and read the entire encyclopedia. But the 4 million articles in Wikipedia would fill 1,000 copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Data about the world around us continues to accumulate unabated at an inhuman pace (see graph below).
Finance – Money itself has become the domain of rocket scientists. “Quants” have driven the esoteric fields of derivatives and hedge funds into ever more complicated esoteric instruments. A few generations ago, you invested in an object or an entity and received some pre-defined share of returns that it produced. Now, financial products take all forms and often are abstracted many “degrees” away from anything tangible. The Enron calamity illustrated the degree of inscrutable complexity that could be engineered.
Politics – Good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. In days of yore, the allies and the enemies were clearly delineated. In today’s world of geopolitics, just figuring out friend or foe has become a complicated task. The world abounds with “frenemy” hybrids. No more so that in the current political crisis in Syria as so deftly illustrated by Vox’s YouTube piece “Syria’s war: Who is fighting and why”.
RELATIVE IGNORANCE PARADOX – Again, I need to reiterate that I am not decrying the “ignorance” of the population. In fact, my proposition assumes that absolute intelligence in the world stays the same or even increases. It just doesn’t increase sufficiently to keep up with the demands on it (that said, there are a number of people who strongly argue that collective intellect is actually on the decline which would only amplify the effect I am describing). This distinction leads to the first corollary of the “Rule of Relative Ignorance”…the “Relative Ignorance Paradox”. It states…
- 90% of people alive today have a higher ABSOLUTE knowledge level than most of the people who have ever lived.
- 90% of people alive today have a lower RELATIVE knowledge level than most of the people who have ever lived (ie. relative to the knowledge base there is to know).
The more information available, the less people understand. Information and Understanding are in inverse proportion leading to an inescapable divergence of relative comprehension.
WHAT TO DO – For starters, there doesn’t appear to be any stopping this trend. The knowledge accumulation that has been accelerated by technology will continue to pile up while the human brain will remain more or less the same organ it was when it evolved millions of years ago. While some outlier individuals will devote more and more of their lives to comprehending the new frontiers of understanding, for most people extra education will not provide substantial personal gains to them. The boundaries of insight will continue to drift inexorably away from the mainstream.
One response is a persistent theme of this blog – embracing failure. Embracing the failure of knowledge is most prominently advocated by the philosophy of “skepticism”. Humankind will need to adopt more humility about each person’s individual understanding. “Authorities” (who will be questionable for their integrity as well as their own ability to truly understand) will have to be supplanted by “Arbitrators” (people and processes that help to navigate the masses of data and insight for a best obtainable understanding). The engineering mind-set of the twentieth century dictated that answers be either right or wrong, black or white. This absolutist perspective be need to be supplanted by more adaptable and flexible outlook where relative shades of grey are the norm.