The Quest for Knowledge in the Age of Information


File the written wandering which follows under the wistful 'Good Ol' Yesteryear!' or 'What's Wrong with The Kids Nowadays?' categories, if you must, but I've lately been thinking a lot about the value of curiosity… and the jarring absence of it that appears to permeate many folks' experience of the world these days.

A few nights ago at dinner, a friend-of-a-friend who teaches American history at the university level was sharing impressions of his students' seeming lack of interest in thoughtfully expanding their knowledge base. He indicated they tend to mistake the proliferative amounts of information they have access to ('all right at their fingertips!' a braggart futurist might hail) for genuine knowledge, which implies an active experiential engagement with the information, a desire to understand rather than merely memorize it.

From there, it was a short trip down memory lane to our fondest recollections of life before the Internet, when we marveled at electric typewriters with more than one font and conducted our research in the dusty bowels of cavernous libraries. Oh, the nostalgia! How I adored the process of scouring the library's encyclopedic directories for a particular obscure reference, leading me into stacks of bound periodicals to unearth, say, that one article from a popular journal of the 1930s from which I might glean a primary-source account of everyday people from another era who thought differently than I.

Okay, I readily admit to glamorizing the 20th-century researcher's experience, but what else would you expect from a devout book-lover (who also confesses to deriving a slight erotic charge from hours spent in a large labyrinthine library)? A hero's journey to the desired item of interest was as energizing as the data itself. I never knew which other volumes, maybe only marginally relevant to my search if it all, might grab me along the way… which enriching bits of treasure I might stumble upon, to pad my pockets of knowledge with… like wandering through a strange town in some foreign country, never knowing who or what you'll find around the next corner.

In trying to guide a recent client through the anxiety of not knowing which job or educational program or travel opportunity should be her next step, I advised her to view her search as a treasure hunt… an adventuresome quest for a life-expanding pot-of-gold, one she might not recognize as such until she sensed the tingle of excitement which indicates she's onto something. Such an approach short-circuits the analytic brain's desire to crunch the data, in order to calculate a 'right answer', when none can in fact exist until experienced. This outlook, my client reported, gave her a newfound sense of excitement about her 'treasure hunt'—it made it sound like fun.

These days, such a quest for an inspiring pot-of-gold is often begun on the Internet, so don't let me give you the idea that I believe this technology itself has forever ruined some platonic ideal of knowledge-seeking. In fact, the exploratory act of 'surfing the Web'—which metaphorically implies we ride its current from link to link, daredevil-style, and let it carry us—is a gorgeous 21st-century mode of gaining knowledge. After all, a browsing session (as I see it) only becomes 'surfing' once we're curious enough about a topic to continue following links, maybe type keywords into a search engine, so we may learn more about it.

We could just as easily absorb our computer time with emails and social media, passively consuming bits of news and/or gossip pushed to us by contacts we already know, swapping personal anecdotes and/or administrative trivia. Indeed, how often do we simply forward messages, share links or re-tweet headlines without even fully digesting the content ourselves, let alone engaging with the material through additional reading? And by 'engaging', I'm not sure whether participation in deafening, disrespectful back-and-forth commentary on articles, where each side parrots a set of talking-points without actually listening enough to consider why someone else might believe differently ('because, hey, I already know I'm right, so…'), should qualify. But, hey, I suppose it's preferable to no participation at all.

The information streams at us from every direction these days, more than most folks really know what to do with. We presumably try to pay attention to that which interests us more, while doing our best to tune out that which doesn't… though, more realistically, it probably blends together into one mind-swallowing blob, characterized by our vague recollections of 'having recently read something about something like that somewhere'. (Guilty as charged on this end, for sure.)

To genuinely care about gaining knowledge on a topic is to look beyond the surface information to its source: How did I end up reading this? Who directed me to it, or did I find it on my own? In which media outlet did it appear? Who wrote it? What is their background, and what might their biases and/or motives be? Who's footing the bill? Where else might I find more thoughts on this same topic from a different type of source?

Just the other day, my partner was telling the kindergarten-age daughter of a friend of ours that you have to be careful not to believe everything you read. It's an important lesson for children and adults alike to take to heart, especially as more and more information is funneled at us from increasingly powerful corporate/ideological interests. It never ceases to amaze how statements, facts and statistics can be twisted to still be officially 'true' while hardly smacking of anything that resembles Core Truth. Propaganda is alive and thriving—and its cleverly-worded informational appeal can only be effectively neutralized by an unbridled commitment to knowledge.

To be clear, I do not assume the unerring wisdom to serve as arbiter in this imprecise distinction between information and knowledge, as if I could or should somehow mete out judgments discerning between valuable and insignificant subject-matters. Such a righteous authoritarian stance has been taken throughout history as a way to enforce the dominance of certain systems of thought over others. In fact, it's this simplifying move itself that I'm trying to draw attention to: While we have to decide for ourselves which bytes-of-data or frames-of-reference are personally important to us, we really ought to do so with as broad a base of understanding as possible. Otherwise, we're spoon-fed certain 'official' perspectives on the world, which may be both only partly true and serving to sway us against our own interests… and we'll thoughtlessly slurp down the pablum provided.

Astrology's archetypes can be useful in helping to illustrate this distinction I'm working with, as two different planets are said to govern, respectively, 'information' (Mercury) and 'knowledge' (Jupiter). We typically associate Mercury with all communications and informational transmissions, which is why we fear the misspeaks and mixed messages during his retrogrades (like the most recent, which just ended on Fri Aug 26). Yet, Jupiter has long been linked with noble quests to expand the mind beyond its everyday confines, pushing us past our prior understandings of the world, in order to grow our base of knowledge. Obviously, then, on this archetypal level, these two modes are dissimilar enough to warrant astrological assignation to separate planetary sovereignties.

This view becomes further fleshed out when we consider the two zodiac signs each that Mercury and Jupiter traditionally rule are in opposition to one another—in other words, the signs in which Mercury is happiest are also where Jupiter is most uncomfortable, and vice versa.

Mercury is in his prime in Gemini, where he quickly adopts the mindset and manner most compatible with his immediate social environment, to maintain a seamless communicative flow. Mercury also thrives in Virgo, where he astutely analyzes the tangible facts of a situation, and can thus devise a workable method for attaining a specific goal. This puts Mercury in his best spots in air and earth, as he seeks to verbally finesse an interpersonal connection (air) or reason toward a concrete result (earth).

Jupiter, meanwhile, gleefully surges with exploratory zeal in Sagittarius, where he gallops out into the wide fields of outward adventure, eager for experiences with strange new people and places and ideas, to keep life interesting. In Pisces, the other sign he traditionally rules, Jupiter is able to transcend superficial differences, to foster compassionate empathy for the variety of souls sharing this humanly voyage. Jupiter's most capable in fire and water, as he bravely follows the call of the wild (fire) or melds our psychic consciousness with our fellow earth-travelers' (water).

Lest my nostalgic musings give the wrong impression I valorize Jupiterian principles over Mercurial business, one can clearly see both are important… and an excess of either, at the expense of the other, can create an unhealthy imbalance. For all his 'greater-benefic' influence, Jupiter can inspire an overly idealistic ignorance of reality's realities, or a self-aggrandized steamrolling over alternate viewpoints based on too hasty an appraisal that something or someone is uninteresting or irrelevant. Though we may earnestly wish to search for meaningful knowledge, we sometimes close ourselves off too abruptly to subtler ways of learning… which we could glean from, if we only involve ourselves in the circuitous social dance with potentially informed acquaintances or just read the fine print more carefully.

Of course, my crotchety complaints about this seemingly misplaced inquisitiveness smack more of Mercury's excesses: a willingness to settle for partial understandings or short-sighted solutions, just to sustain certain superficial alliances or to get today's affairs taken care of. When I wax worrisome about our 'age of information', it is out of my concern for our collective well-being resting in the hands of those who'll accept anything they see or hear, if it comes from someone they like and/or desire to please. And I t's my fear that too much microscopic focus on traversing one practical hurdle after another inhibits the higher mind from pondering larger questions—those that can't be answered by a 2-minute Google search—which comprehensively address how any of those 'hurdles' may be mere symptoms of a whole in dire need of repair.

As such, I lack a pithy conclusion to tidily summarize my meanderings. In this context, my job isn't to offer a reassuring premise you can forward to your Facebook friends. I suppose it's merely to keep us all thinking about thinking. So please don't take my word on anything. Check out what else is out there…