Computers are not wise. They may be intelligent, at least in the sense of being able to recall and digest a great deal of information according to exceedingly complex mathematical paradigms, but they are subject to the limitations of the human operators who feed them the data and instruct them how it is to be analyzed. If the operators themselves are not wise, then the result of machine manipulation only compounds the foolishness of the original input.
What is wisdom? I think of it, in theory at least, as the capacity to look at a complex human social situation and arrive at a decision or course of action which is at least close to optimum for all concerned, more or less in proportion to the degree of individual involvement.
Wisdom involves something akin to tackling the traveling salesman problem. This classic problem in mathematics tries to find the shortest route passing through a large number of cities connected by multiple routes. Various formulae have been devised to answer the question; all require powerful computers which have only become available to ordinary laypeople in the last couple of decades. Yet somehow traveling salespeople have been dealing effectively with this task at least since the invention of the internal combustion engine, and people in positions of responsibility have effectively handled similar situations, like balancing the budget for the East India Company for the year 1805, for much longer.
Wisdom is notoriously a product of advancing age, though by no means all old people show evidence of it, whereas some surprisingly young people do. It seems to require that a person have a good store of personal experience to draw on, as well as secondhand experience, acquired through education and personal interaction, and the analytical faculties to combine them in an enlightened manner. If any of these components is seriously defective, the decisions that result are unlikely to be wise.
In a previous post I discussed the multiple factors which seem to be undermining the memories of Americans of my generation. A memory impaired by substance abuse or spongiform encephalopathy is simply not a reliable font of personal experience, especially if a third party with its own agenda replaces those memories with false ones. From a purely theoretical standpoint, a person with a deteriorating memory is unlikely to be wise, particularly if in denial about his or her capacities. On a practical level, this is what I have observed among my acquaintances – people who, based on their experiences, ought to have better strategies for negotiating the minefield that is life, but don’t seem to have learned the lesson.
What about secondhand experience and acquired knowledge? That we live surrounded by “fake news” and unreliable secondary sources is acknowledged. They call this the Information Age but in many respects it is the disinformation age, with a huge volume of input, but no increase in the amount of it that is relevant and reliable. Individuals who ought to be personally engaged with the primary sources are forced to rely on digests, trusting that no biases have crept in during the transmission. As an example, the so-called Affordable Care Act was 2500 pages long and contained major revisions introduced in the week before it came to a vote. Every Congressperson who voted on it did so based on what they were told it said and what an army of lobbyists told them the implications, fiscal and otherwise, might be. It is possible Oregon’s senators and representatives have some wisdom among them – they are all college graduates, not conspicuous substance abusers, and over 40 – but the circumstances of the passage of this bill, and other major pieces of legislation, made the exercise of it highly unlikely. By contrast, the East India Company budget for 1805 ran about twenty pages, and the Members of Parliament who voted on it were certainly familiar with the contents.
In the mid-seventies , when in graduate school, I heard the Firesign Theater satire “Everything you Know is Wrong”, and that catch phrase has stuck with me, if only as a reminder to be skeptical of transmitted information, and not use it as a basis of action until I have checked it against another independent source, including my own experience. As a child I read Hilaire Belloc’s “Bad Child’s Book of Beasts” and “More Beasts for Worse Children” (1912), and took to heart the moral of “The Microbe”: -“ But scientists, who ought to know, Assure us that it must be so, Oh! Let us never, never doubt, what nobody is sure about!” At that time, around 1958, many scientific truths accepted in 1912 were no longer accepted, and I’m old enough, and have a good enough memory, to be aware how many “truths” taught me in 1958 are no longer respected. If I did not have a good memory I would not be aware that they were even taught as truth in 1958, because, by and large, the errors of past pedagogy in one’s own culture are not acknowledged.
A characteristic of the computer age is the ease with which secondhand knowledge is accessed, and the corresponding low probability that it will be digested. In the days before Xerox machines became readily available, I used to copy passages and take detailed notes on texts, and I remember the contents of those texts much better than I do the items I Xeroxed and stuck in a file folder when I was doing my dissertation. These days I can download large files from the internet without reading a single sentence, and know nothing more of the item than the title and perhaps the abstract. That’s if I download it, rather than leaving it on someone else’s website, saving only the link. This lack of engagement with an item decreases its value as a contributor to my personal wisdom.
Finally, it is difficult to be wise if one does not have the tools of logic and clear thinking, particularly mathematical thinking, and it seems to me that heavy reliance on electronic devices for these functions allows this faculty to atrophy, so that a person becomes unable to frame a dilemma or navigate its complexities, being incapable of reducing it to its numerical equivalent.
Two essays relating to the same theme.
Photo is public domain