Call Me an Expert

I’m an expert.

Whatever you want to know, just ask me. A quick trip to Wikipedia, a glance at a news website and some soundings in the blogosphere (which, by the way, is a word that I detest) and any topic is mastered. Information on Libya? I’ve got that. The current economic crisis? I have solutions. Need a translation of something in Arabic (or Chinese, or Russian, etc.)? I can rough that out for you. Ideas on the current state of physics? Loads of ‘em. The latest celebrity scandal? I’ve seen the pictures. As I said, I am an expert.

The amount of information available today at the press of a button is unparalleled by any other period in history. With faster and more accurate language technology, even the age old language barrier is beginning to break down. The technology and information industries are growing at an exponential rate and we – rulers of our domain with our all-powerful laptops, iPads, and smart-phones – can access it all.

But there is another side to this information blitzkrieg in which we all live, something that Jacques Ellul touched on about half a century ago. While we have access to all this information, we don’t have mastery of it. Ellul, in his book Propaganda: the Formation of Men’s [sic] Attitudes, argued that western society (and, thanks to the internet and a more ‘globalized’ context, I think we can safely extend this to the rest of the world) is overrun by the information we possess such that we rely on preconceived value judgements and arguments to give us consolation, the illusion of mastery. In this way, the more information we have, the less able we are to digest it ourselves, thus leading to the feeling of being overwhelmed by our lack of knowledge and our need for ready-made answers to help us feel secure. This is a vicious circle, since in relying on the analyses of others to form our attitudes on a given topic, we do not cultivate the ability to critically consider the issues. We are taught, both explicitly and implicitly, to store/retrieve information and react rather than to understand and act.

The above mode of living is strikingly different from the biblical view of knowledge. For the biblical writers, knowledge worth having was knowledge of God and the way in which a person interacted with the world around them. Knowledge, in other words, was considered in terms of wisdom––it was maintaining right relationships with others, the community, and God. There is not even a word in Greek or Hebrew that has the same connotations as the English “information.” It just wasn’t a concern. In the book of Psalms it says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (111:10) and in Proverbs it says the same thing about knowledge (1:7). The internet and news channels didn’t seem to factor into the equation then.[1] In later rabbinic tradition, a wise man was described as one who does not speak before someone who is wiser, doesn’t interrupt their colleague, is slow to make an answer, sticks to the relevant points, and when they don’t know they simply say “I have not heard.”[2] I like how this sounds in Hebrew: lo shamati. This seems not so far from Socrates’ wisdom, “I know that I do not know.” It seems a world away, however, from our current sound-bite and propaganda driven lives today. Sometimes we need to be reminded that it’s okay not to know, not to have an opinion on a current event, not to have it all figured out. Let’s all strive for wisdom, for right relationships with God and others. Let’s all practice together now: lo shamati.

Ben Edsall
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[1] I say this with tongue firmly in cheek.
[2] This is a paraphrase from Mishnah Avot 5.7.

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One response to “Call Me an Expert

  1. Pingback: There’s one born every minute… « Wondering Fair·

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