Do we know everything?
Sunday, March 08, 2009
We've reached a point in human history where we know everything. Or we think we know everything, thanks to google and iPhones or whatever smart phone you have.
Try this experiment. Say you want to know the population of Albatrosses in Argentina. This is a very useless bit of information, and it's esoteric enough for not just anyone to have lingering on the tip of the tongue. Depending on where you are, someone will know the answer. However, you could just google it and get a reasonable approximation (or the exact number).
Because we know everything, we are also becoming smarter. What I mean is that we know everything that a collective mind is able to know, write down (on blogs, for example), and quickly find with tools like search engines. Of course, not all the information is true or useful or both, but if you take the average of our collective wisdom we are very smart--but only if we have google in front of us.
I must qualify what everything
means here. By everything, I don't mean everything everything. I mean everything to a reasonable degree. If you were to ask what the meaning of life is, our collective wisdom doesn't have the answer. We have crazy concepts, but none of them are verifiable. What's more, there are things that we just don't know yet and will likely never know. Have you heard of Gödel's incompleteness theorem? If you haven't, you can google it, and then know--which is my point exactly. Go ahead google it
If you are back, then you'll agree with me now that not everything is provable. And if not everything is provable that means that we are likely to not know everything everything (ever). But we know enough I guess, thanks to search engines and our quick thumbs.
I will not venture to take sides and proclaim that this is a good thing or a bad thing. All I can say is that it just is, and that we're becoming quite a uniform bunch of thinkers: we get the same answers that everyone one gets, because of the relevance on search results--now, this could be argued to be a very bad thing.
But haven't we been here before? I think we have--to a certain extent. The era I'm referring to was part of the whole printing press revolution.
There is a big difference, however; blogs and web sites are not to be trusted. Sure, some are good, but the majority of blogs are crap and are just trying to get us to buy crap. With the printing press revolution, on the other hand, there was a sense of standards that needed to apply to anything published: it was relatively expensive to print a whole book, then it had to be of a reasonable quality. The same can't be said for blogs: we have zero barriers of entry and anyone can write anything (this entry is proof in point).
So, knowing more is not in itself that bad, right? Look at all that we've accomplished before and after the dark ages. What's bad, I contend, is the consensus building that comes from having all the information available in seconds.
Again, getting the information so quickly is not bad at all. The issues is that we get someone else to make up our minds for us. Blogs are full of bias and they are only representing a distilled view of whatever topic we are looking for. Therefore, if search engines keep giving us the most "relevant" result for a topic, then that will become the answer from now on. It's group-think at a massive scale.
Why didn't this happen with printed books? It did, in a way. But I go back to the quality. What's more, with books it took a little longer to find what we were looking for, and we could have bumped into a counter example of what we thought was right, thus giving us a chance to evaluate a couple of alternatives before making up our mind.
To be fair, we could do the same with search results. However, the first result is likely the only thing we will evaluate and then make up our mind about it--I mean, who has time to keep searching? It's how memes get created. Memes in the era of the web and social networking are likely to be half-truths and eventually become crowd-wisdom.