Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
T. S. Eliot
Where indeed? The line is from The Rock, a pageant co-authored by Eliot in 1934 at the request of the Bishop of Chichester. The pageant was commissioned to raise money for the Fund of the Diocese of London. The Fund was a charity dedicated to the preservation of older diocesan churches and the building of churches in the newly developing London suburbs. The Rock ran for two weeks and enjoyed an audience of about 1500 every evening. It was quite a production. There were ten scenes representing periods in church history—each with its own color scheme—330 players, action, dialog and a poetic chorus offering commentary in verse. The choruses were Eliot’s contribution and were quite dramatic. A 16 member chorus wore stylized robes and stood motionless behind the “Rock.” The voices in the chorus alternated between individuals, men, women and the entire chorus. The pageant’s theme was that God had been replaced by new gods of power, wealth and pleasure. It warned that science and technology were supplanting God. It exhorted that without recognizing that there exists something greater than man, life begins to lose meaning, we are swallowed by trivial details and values erode. All of it replaced by utilitarian bits of data. Not surprisingly, the church pageant recommended a reinvigorated faith in Christ—the Rock—to restore the balance.
Nearly 80 years later, we are awash in information but with a deficit of knowledge. Our technology is amassing data at an extraordinary rate but we don’t know quite what to do with it or where it will take us. And that’s the problem; technology seems to lead us rather than the other way around. At the recent SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, a Carnegie Mellon professor discussed experiments in which publicly available information, when linked to facial recognition software, accurately identified people right down to their social security number. Another speaker explained that while data aggregation had positive potential for people, it often wouldn’t be available to the individual because it was owned by someone else. In essence, your identity could be shaped by folks unknown to you and with no particular interest in your welfare. Recently a controversy ensued when T-shirt manufacturer Solid Gold Bomb printed, and Amazon sold, shirts with the message “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot.” The phrase wasn’t the result of a copywriter’s tasteless humor. Instead, from concept to delivery it was an automated process. The company uses an algorithm to create edgy phrases from wordlists. The phrases are then digitally overlaid on T-shirts for display on the web. The shirt isn’t actually printed until it is ordered. Then another automated process packages it and ships it to the buyer. Basically there’s no human involvement until the public notices that something’s gone horribly wrong and by that time, the damage has been done.
There’s no way to slow technology down and we probably wouldn’t want to if we could. Each of us can, however, become more mindful of the knowledge deficit found in much of the information we encounter. So pay attention. Don’t be too quick to follow whatever is “trending” and accept whatever comes your way as true. Try to discern why the information is meaningful and how it fits in with your values and beliefs. Filter out the trivial and don’t be afraid to buck the trends. Be judicious in the information you give away and be sensitive to how it’s used. We can’t stop the tech-generated torrent of information but we can add the knowledge ourselves. —Ebert