Knowledge and Wisdom in the Information Age

The Glass Bead Game from the Red Star Cafe blog

Magister LudiI suddenly realized that in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbol led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with truly a meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang holiness is forever being created.

Joseph Knecht, Master of The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse

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It’s been a long time since I read this book by Hesse, but I remember enjoying it.  I read a lot of Hesse in highschool and was highly impressed at the time.  This quote reminds me of a passage from Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis.  PKD was describing a mystical interaction with divine information.  Every thought, every question, every possibility led to infinity.  There was no final conclusion.  To read the this PKD passage, see my blog post PKD on God as Infinity.

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The Glass Bead Game Redux from the Red Star Cafe blog

Borg CubeReaders of blogs like this are witnessing a shift of intellectual authority from the traditional “expert” to the broader public. This is nowhere more tellingly illustrated than by Wikipedia, which has roughly 300,000 volunteer contributors every month.

What makes the mobilization of “crowd wisdom” intellectually powerful is that the technology of the Web makes it so easy for even amateurs to access a growing fraction of the body of human knowledge. The value of traditional expert authority is itself being diluted by the new incentive structure created by information technology that militates against what is deep and nuanced in favour of what is fast and stripped-down.

The result is the growing disintermediation of experts and gatekeepers of virtually all kinds. The irony is that experts have been the source of most of the nuggets of knowledge that the crowd now draws upon – for example, news and political bloggers depend heavily on a relatively small number of sources of professional journalism, just as many Wikipedia articles assimilate prior scholarship. The system works because it is able to mine intellectual capital. This suggests that today’s cult of the amateur will ultimately be self-limiting and will require continuous fresh infusions of more traditional forms of expert knowledge.

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I would point out that the intelligence of the internet age isn’t merely parasitic, but rather is a levelling of the playing field.  Instead of being passive receivers, people now interact with their media.

Two examples.

First, news media follows closely twitter and the blogosphere to catch new trends and breaking news.  Reporters aren’t usually the first people to be on a scene and with cellphones firsthand reporting can potentially come from anyone.

Second, bloggers often are very dedicated researchers who aren’t limited by the financial obligations of working for a media company.  Many bloggers are highly educated and trained in various fields.  Even if they don’t have the title of expert, they may act in that capacity.  Bloggers often do original analysis and uncover new data, and mainstream reporters do sometimes cite bloggers.  Bloggers don’t often get much respectability, but neither did the early muckrakers who were the earliest investigative reporters.

By being outside of the mainstream, bloggers have a different perspective.  Sometimes bloggers are reporting on issues and events that get almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media.

The value of traditional expert authority isn’t being diluted, but it is being challenged.  I would, however, argue that this strengthens expert authority by holding it to an even higher standard.

Objective analysis shows that Wikipedia articles on science and history are as reliable as encyclopedias (I would argue that they may be more reliable in some ways as they’re constantly being updated).  Also, Wikipedia cites many external sources that often are directly linked and so one can judge for themselves rather than solely relying on an expert.  In the long run, Wikipedia will on average become more reliable than a traditional printed encyclopedia.  Furthermore, Wikipedia has stringent standards and so acts as a training ground for any person to learn how to determine the validity of information.

So, the web doesn’t result in “the growing disintermediation of experts and gatekeepers”.  Rather, it increases mediation and creates better methods of gatekeeping.  Traditional experts still play a part, but they no longer dominate the discussion.

The above blog linked to an article by Peter Nicholson.  The following blog is a response to that article.  The opinion of stated below resonates with my own sense of this emerging information age.

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Reducing Life to a Formula from the Ooops…I’m still here blog

What has led me to rant about this pet peeve of mine,  is Peter Nicholson’s, Globe and Mail article, “Information – rich and attention – poor” (09-09-12).  Blaming the digital age he declares,

“In becoming information rich, we have become attention poor… [E]conomics teaches that the counterpart of every new abundance is a new scarcity – in this case the scarcity of human time and attention.”

[…]There is nothing wrong with the abundance of information created by digital technology.  Yes, I realise some of it is slim, but that’s okay, because there are ways of accessing deeper knowledge as well.  I personally have not experienced an attention deficit as a result of the “knowledge abundance”.  What I have experienced is a thrill at being able to access so much information in such a short time.  I do not fear what Nicholson refers to as the “24-hour knowledge cycle”, the ability to access news 24/7.  I relish in it.

                    Nicholson writes about the changing market for knowledge.  He states:

“When the effective shelf life of a document (or any information product) shrinks, fewer resources will be invested in its creation.  This is because the period during which the product is likely to be read or referred to is too short to repay a large allocation of scarce time and skill in its production.  As a result the ‘market’ for depth is narrowing.”

When you look at what is happening in the publishing world you have to agree with the first part of his comment, that because a “news product” has a short life it’s not financially feasible to invest heavily in it.  However, I disagree with his conclusion, that the result is  that the market for depth is narrowing.  Hey,  I’m part of the market and I’m not narrowing, nor are my eleven year old students who’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable.  The desire for “depth” is not diminished by the abundance of knowledge.  In fact, it is enriched by it.

PKD on God as Infinity

A favorite passage of mine from Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis which was a journal he kept later in life.  Excerpts of it were published under the title In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis (which sadly is out of print)The following excerpt can be found along with other excerpts at MIQEL.com.  For those interested in this, new excerpts from PKD’s Exegesis can be found on PhilipKDick.com.

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God manifested himself to me as the infinite void;
but it was not the abyss; it was the vault of heaven,
with blue sky and wisps of white clouds. He was not
some foreign God but the God of my fathers. He was
loving and kind and he had personality. He said, “You
suffer a little now in life; it is little compared with the
great joys, the bliss that awaits you. Do you think I in
my theodicy would allow you to suffer greatly in pro-
portion to your reward?” He made me aware, then, of
the bliss that would come; it was infinite and sweet.
He said, “I am the infinite. I will show you. Where I
am, infinity is; where infinity is, there I am. Construct
lines of reasoning by which to understand your experi-
ence in 1974. I will enter the field against their shift-
ing nature. You think they are logical but they are not;
they are infinitely creative.”

I thought a thought and then an infinite regres-
sion of theses and countertheses came into being. God
said, “Here I am; here is infinity.” I thought another
explanation; again an infinite series of thoughts split
off in dialectical antithetical interaction. God said,
“Here is infinity; here I am.” I thought, then, an infi-
nite number of explanations, in succession, that
explained 2-3-74; each single one of them yielded up
an infinite progression of flipflops, of thesis and
antithesis, forever. Each time, God said, “Here is infin-
ity. Here, then, I am.” I tried for an infinite number of
times; each time an infinite regress was set off and
each time God said, “Infinity. Hence I am here.” Then


he said, “Every thought loads to infinity, does it not?
Find one that doesn’t.” I tried forever. All led to an
infinitude of regress, of the dialectic, of thesis, antithe-
sis and new synthesis. Each time, God said, “Here is
infinity; here am I. Try again.” I tried forever. Always
it ended with God saying, “Infinity and myself; I am
here.” I saw, then, a Hebrew letter with many shafts,
and all the shafts led to a common outlet; that outlet
or conclusion was infinity. God said, “That is myself. I
am infinity. Where infinity is, there am I; where I am,
there is infinity. All roads—all explanations for 2-3-74—
lead to an infinity of Yes-No, This or That, On-Off, One-
Zero, Yin-Yang, the dialectic, infinity upon infinity; an
infinities [sic] of infinities. I am everywhere and all
roads lead to me; omniae viae ad Deum ducent [all
roads lead to God]. Try again. Think of another possi-
ble explanation for 2-3-74.” I did; it led to an infinity
of regress, of thesis and antithesis and new synthesis.
“This is not logic,” God said. “Do not think in terms of
absolute theories; think instead in terms of probabili-
ties. Watch where the piles heap up, of the same the-
ory essentially repeating itself. Count the number of
punch cards in each pile. Which pile is highest? You
can never know for sure what 2-3-74 was. What, then,
is statistically most probable? Which is to say, which
pile is highest? Here is your clue: every theory leads to
an infinity (of regression, of thesis and antithesis and
new synthesis). What, then, is the probability that I
am the cause of 2-3-74, since, where infinity is, there I
am? You doubt; you are the doubt as in:

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly I am the wings.
I am the doubter and the doubt

From the poem “Brahma” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“You are not the doubter; you are the doubt itself.
So do not try to know; you cannot know. Guess on the
basis of the highest pile of computer punch cards.
There is an infinite stack in the heap marked INFIN-
ITY, and I have equated infinity with me. What, then,
in the chance that it is me? You cannot be positive; you
will doubt. But what is your guess?”

I said, “Probably it is you, since there is an infinity
of Infinities forming before me.”

“There is the answer, the only one you will ever
have,” God said.

“You could be pretending to be God,” I said, “and
actually be Satan.” Another infinitude of thesis and
antithesis and new synthesis, the infinite regress, was

set off.

God said, “Infinity.”

I said, “You could be testing out a logic system in a giant

computer and I am—” Again an infinite
regress.

“Infinity,” God said.

“Will it always be infinite?” I said. “An infinity?”

“Try further,” God said.

“I doubt if you exist,” I said. And the infinite
regress instantly flew into motion once more.

“Infinity,” God said. The pile of computer punch
cards grew; it was by far the largest pile; it was infinite.

“I will play this game forever,” God said, “or until
you become tired.”

I said, “I will find a thought, an explanation, a
theory, that does not set off an infinite regress.” And,
us soon as I said that, an infinite regress was set off.
God said “Over a period of six and a half years you
have developed theory after theory to explain 2-3-74.
Each night when you go to bed you think, ‘At last I
found it. I tried out theory after theory until now,
finally, I have the right one.’ And then the next morn-


ing you wake up and say, ‘There is one fact not
explained by that theory. I will have to think up
another theory.’ And so you do. By now it is evident
to you that you are going to think up an infinite num-
ber of theories, limited only by your lifespan, not lim-
ited by your creative imagination. Each theory gives
rise to a subsequent theory, inevitably. Let me ask
you; I revealed myself to you and you saw that I am
the infinite void. I am not in the world, as you
thought; I am transcendent, the deity of the Jews and
Christians. What you see of me in world that you
took to ratify pantheism—that is my being filtered
through, broken up, fragmented and vitiated by the
multiplicity of the flux world; it is my essence, yes,
but only a bit of it: fragments here and there, a glint,
a riffle of wind … now you have seen me transcen-
dent, separate and other from world, and I am more;
I am the infinitude of the void, and you know me as
I am. Do you believe what you saw? Do you accept
that where the infinite is, I am; and where I am,
there is the infinite?”

I said, “Yes.”

God said, “And your theories are infinite, so I am
there. Without realizing it, the very infinitude of your
theories pointed to the solution; they pointed to me
and none but me. Are you satisfied, now? You saw me
revealed in theophany; I speak to you now; you have,
while alive, experienced the bliss that is to come; few
humans have experienced that bliss. Let me ask you,
Was it a finite bliss or an infinite bliss?”

I said, “Infinite.”

“So no earthly circumstance, situation, entity or
thing could give rise to it.”

“No, Lord,” I said.

“Then it is I,” God said. “Are you satisfied?”

“Let me try one other theory,” I said. “What hap-

pened in 2-3-74 was that—” And an infinite regress
was set off, instantly.

“Infinity,” God said. “Try again. I will play forever,
for infinity.”

“Here’s a new theory,” I said. “I ask myself, ‘What
God likes playing games? Krishna. You are Krishna.'”
And then the thought came to me instantly, “But
there is a god who mimics other gods; that god is
Dionysus. This may not be Krishna at all; it may be
Dionysus pretending to be Krishna.” And an infinite
regress was set off.

“Infinity,” God said.

“You cannot be YHWH Who You say You are,” I
said. “Because YHWH says, ‘I am that which I am,’ or,
‘I shall be that which I shall be.’ And you—”

“Do I change?” God said. “Or do your theories
change?”

“You do not change,” I said. “My theories change.
You, and 2-3-74, remain constant.”

“Then you are Krishna playing with me,” God
said.

“Or I could be Dionysus,” I said, “pretending to be
Krishna. And I wouldn’t know it; part of the game is
that I, myself, do not know. So I am God, without real-
izing it. There’s a new theory!” And at once an infinite
regress was set off; perhaps I was God, and the “God”
who spoke to me was not.

“Infinity,” God said. “Play again. Another move.”
“We are both Gods,” I said, and another infinite
regress was set off.

“Infinity,” God said.

“I am you and you are you,” I said. “You have
divided yourself in two to play against yourself. I, who
am one half, I do not remember, but you do. As it says
in the GITA, as Krishna says to Arjuna, ‘We have both
lived many lives, Arjuna; I remember them but you


do not.” “‘ And an infinite regress was set off; I could
well be Krishna’s charioteer, his friend Arjuna, who
does not remember his past lives.

“Infinity,” God said.

I was silent.

“Play again,” God said.

“I cannot play to infinity,” I said. “I will die before
that point conies.”

“Then you are not God,” God said. “But I can play
throughout infinity; I am God. Play.”

“Perhaps I will be reincarnated,” I said. “Perhaps
we have done this before, in another life.” And an infi-
nite regress was set off.

“Infinity,” God said. “Play again.”

“I am too tired,” I said.

“Then the game is over.”

“After I have rested—”

“You rest?” God said. “George Herbert** wrote of me:

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessnesse.
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodness leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

“Herbert wrote that in 1633,” God said. “Rest and
the game ends.”

“I will play on,” I said, “after I rest. I will play until
finally I die of it.”

“And then you will come to me,” God said.
“Play.”

“This is my punishment,” I said, “that I play, that I

* Krishna to Arjuna in chapter 10 of the BHAGAVAD GITA.
** George Herbert (1593-1633), English Christian poet and mystic. The
lines quoted by PKD form the final stanza of the poem “The Pulley.” In
line five, “my” is capitalized in the original.

try to discern if it was you in March of 1974.” And the
thought came instantly, My punishment or my
reward; which? And an infinite series of thesis and
antithesis was set off.

“Infinity,” God said. “Play again.”

“What was my crime?” I said, “that I am com-
pelled to do this?”

“Or your deed of merit,” God said.

“I don’t know,” I said.

God said, “Because you are not God.”

“But you know,” I said. “Or maybe you don’t
know and you’re trying to find out.” And an infinite
regress was set off.

“Infinity,” God said. “Play again. I am waiting.”

(17 November 1980)