Thursday, October 14, 2010

We Know Too Much

In some ways, life was so much simpler a thousand years ago.  If you were an adult living at this time, chances are, you knew just about everything there was to know.  You were informed on the best agriculture techniques of the day, the best hunting methods, and the appropriate medicines for any ailments.  You, and all adults in your community, knew that a wheel rolled, that a lever was useful for lifting heavy things, that sharp things were good for cutting, and that a wound could heal quicker if pressure were applied to it.  You knew everything you needed to know to survive, and a little more.  You believed, wrongly, that the Sun revolved around the Earth; but, to your credit, so did your neighbour.
A lot has changed in the ensuing years.  The quantity of knowledge amassed by man during these years is truly astonishing; particularly in the past one hundred years.  If we consider our current net volume of knowledge, we may literally blow our minds.  To avoid scraping our brain bits from the walls, we tend to set limits on what we are willing to learn.  A scientifically inclined individual like me will tend not to read textbooks on Politics, and most politicians do not know the second law of thermodynamics. 

Today, the average human being knows a lot.  The average ten-year-old knows more than his 11th Century ancestors ever did.  In adulthood, through education and experience, this already wide base of knowledge is often complimented with specialization in one or more areas.  In science, it feels as though there is no limit on how far one can specialize in one particular area.  This is of course untrue, because if you specialize sufficiently, you will find yourself pressed up against a limit.  If you wish to specialize further, you and other specialists in your field will need to do some work, after which, you will have added to the already overflowing human encyclopedia of knowledge (Gee, thanks).
How specialized can one become?  Let us say that you wish to join other modern physicists in the quest for a unified theory.  After High School, where you learned a little about everything and a lot about nothing, you can do an Undergraduate Physics Degree at University.  You will learn all the fundamentals about Physics, and maybe a little more.  Then, it’s time to specialize.  You do a two-year Masters degree, where you research the current state of string theory, and realize you don’t want to live in a twenty-two dimensional space.  You persevere onward, and do a PhD in Physics, where your thesis attempts, with limited success, to make certain mathematical singularities vanish from the Universe’s governing equations.  With more than a third of your life behind you, all but the first few years of it spent in the education system, you decide it’s time to get a job.  Unfortunately, the only thing you can do is teach Physics and do research in that area.  You spend the rest of your life pressing up against the wall that by now is very familiar to you.  In all likelihood, yourself, or one of your colleagues, will push the envelope back a bit further, and so it goes...
Every professional has a niche, and knows the current limits of it; many seek to push them further along.  Combine this basic curiosity with the corporate world, which stands to get rich by pushing against the limits of technology, and it is easy to see why man’s wealth of knowledge grows at an exponential rate.  This rate has increased in recent years due to the internet.  Knowledge and inspiration is always a few clicks away.  If you know where credible information hides on the internet (not Wikipedia), you can learn a lot very quickly using it.  Powerful search engines ensure that work is not reproduced.  For the first time ever, the whole world is working together to learn more.  The internet has caused technology to spiral out of control, because the internet itself cannot be controlled.  Sometimes I wonder if we have already entered into a technological singularity, where future technologies are becoming increasingly impossible to predict.
All of this can seem very daunting to an eighteen-year-old getting ready to enter higher level education.  Not only is there a lot to know, but in many areas, that knowledge is changing faster than it can be learned.  I can sympathize with a student who is having trouble choosing what to study.  I would be reluctant to spend three years learning things that may be dated when I graduate.  Imagine, you think you are doing a degree in Genetic Engineering, and then you receive your diploma, and it reads, “History of Genetic Engineering.”  This is a mild exaggeration of the current state of specialization.
Another phenomenon that results from technological advancements is that most people have no clue how most of their tools work.  Take a well-educated lawyer for example (I don’t know why, but Lawyers are fun to pick on).  She wakes up thanks to her alarm clock, which keeps time, but she does not know how.  She doesn’t have time to care, because she is soon driving to work in her car, which, little does she know, is propelled due to many small explosions in its internal combustion engine.  At work, she switches on her computer, another electronic mystery.  In checking her email, she knows she’s connected to the internet, that magic web in the sky.  Does she know that without satellites, she could not check her email?  Does she know that those satellites travel at many kilometres per second?  I doubt it.  It’s 9:15 AM, and on this day, this lawyer has already taken countless scientific marvels for granted.
This lawyer is not ignorant.  She has specialized in law; I have never read, and probably never will read a textbook about Law.  If she is ignorant about the science that governs her world, then I am equally ignorant about the laws that govern me and the society I live in.  I take laws for granted.  Imagine the disgusting pig sty we’d live in if there were no laws limiting the extent to which we could trash our world.
Humanity had better keep good records of what it knows.  It knows more than any one person can.  On the bright side, one has freedom to educate oneself in whatever areas one finds useful.  The inevitable difference between your background and that of your neighbour can lead to interesting conversations between you.  Relationships tend to be more fulfilling when the people in them bring different things to the table.  Things may have been simpler long ago, but there is much freedom and beauty to be found amidst the increasing complexity.  Would you like to learn about String Theory?  Check it out on Wikipedia.

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