Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

Information—Yes, But Where Has All Our Wisdom Gone?

By Henryk Skolimowski, Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan, USA

The modern fetish for collecting information is creating an over-informed yet woefully unenlightened society.

Lecture given on March 28, 1984, in the series: ‘Educating the Information Society', sponsored by Eastern Michigan University, (reprinted from The Ecologist, Vol. 14, No. 5-6, 1984 by kind permission of the Editor)

Dambana Kiri Banda and grandchild. Click to visit
Indigenous wisdom, transmitted from generation to generation, often escapes the purview of the Information Society. Dambana Kiri Banda and grandchild.

Since everybody talks about the information society, surely it must be around. But I do not see any Information Society worthy of the name society. Like Diogenes I have searched with my Lantern in various nooks and crannies for signs of the existence of the Information Society as a new social form. My search has proved disappointing.

Well, yes, I see a lot of computers around. But this does not make a new type of society. I hear a lot of loose talk about the information revolution. But this does not make a new society either.

If we live in the information society, why are we so poorly informed? The President is not informed. We are not informed—at least as to how to live our lives. Evidently more is required than bits of information which we can store in computers. All those billions and zillions of tit-bits, stored in computers, can help us but little.

In my humble opinion what is involved and what is required is judgment, wisdom, enlightenment. You do not make your judgment sharper and more mature by acquiring more bits of information. You do not make your judgment wiser by acquiring more bits, of whatever sort. You make your judgment by becoming a wiser person. You do not acquire more enlightenment by acquiring more computer programmes. You acquire enlightenment by becoming an enlightened person—not a reservoir of information (for encyclopedias serve this purpose) but a source of light. In all the three instances: of judgment, of wisdom, of enlightenment we deal with new qualities.

The Information Society deals only with quantity. The information society does not know the meaning of quality; computers do not, at any rate. Hence the Information Society (based on computer information) cannot help us to acquire quality: of judgement, of wisdom, of enlightenment. Whatever number of computers you take, they cannot make a new society.

To conceive a new social design, or to invent a new society is a task much more difficult than splitting the atom or inventing the steam engine. During the last millennium, especially the last two centuries, western civilization has shown its prowess in technical inventions. We cannot claim the same power of inventiveness in the social realm.

The social legacy of technological change is something that we should really ponder over. I am talking about those social innovations that came in the wake of technological change, or were induced by it, in recent times. It would appear that the only new social innovation of the technological society is the shopping mall and suburbia. They were created inadvertently. They happened by default. The shopping mall functions in a way similar to that of the well in traditional societies: it draws people from the entire surrounding area. But there is a difference.

Ananda Coomaraswamy visiting the Tagores in Calcutta
Ananda Coomaraswamy visiting the Tagores in Calcutta, early 20th Century

While the traditional well was a vital centre for the exchange of information, of sharpening of wits, and a real social school for living, the shopping mail is a monument to non-communication. It dulls the mind by the appalling uniformity of goods, and is a school of alienation.

Suburbia is like the village in olden times. But while the village taught self-reliance and fostered gregariousness and conviviality, suburbia teaches isolation, dependence on gadgets, and prepares the ground for appeasement by drugs. Technological change has produced undesirable social mutants: the atomised family and the isolated individual who is in touch with the world by touching buttons but cannot be touched by his neighbours or be in touch with himself.

It seems that there is a law that governs technological change: the more sophisticated technology becomes the more it disengages us from 1ife. The question is whether the recent developments in electronics and computers are an exception to this law. Are we closer to life and to ourselves as the result of the information revolution? Will we be closer to life if each of us possesses a personal computer? One of the Atari directors, Marcian E. Hoff Jr., informs us that "The Personal Computer is a Wonderful Solution Looking for a Problem."

Yet, many people behave, or at least say, that computers in the 1980s will be what drugs were in the 1960s—an extension of the self. The other day I heard Timothy Leary—the high guru of the 60s— expanding this very view. And so completely was he sold on the idea that computers are smarter than us, and that we are entering the phase of complete symbiosis with them, that I was taken aback—until the interviewer asked Leary the question: "We seem to have an abundance of information. But wisdom seems to be in short supply. Will computers supply us with wisdom?" To which question Leary responded without hesitation: "Yeah, yeah. In five years we shall have wisdom programmes. For 39 dollars you will be able to buy a wisdom programme and play a wisdom game with the computer." At this point I knew it was all rubbish. If you think that you can buy a wisdom programme, you do not know what wisdom is all about; and perhaps you never will if you accept it on the computers terms.

Thus there is a great deal of loose talk and often plain rubbish going on about the greatness of the coming age of the computer. When I listen carefully to those exaggerated claims, often just laughable, I am persuaded (in my soul at least) that if information society means buying wisdom programmes, going underground to live closer to nature (as Isaac Asimov advocates), having everything done for you by computers and robots-then I want no part of it. I want society that engages me with life, not eliminates me from it.

The columnist Sydney I. Harris put it so well when he said: "The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers."

Perhaps we have already started doing that. Hence all this loose talk about the coming greatness of the Information Society.


In what sense and to what degree can computers make us free? The possession of information does not make you free. Do we communicate better with each other when we have computers at our disposal? Hardly. The essence of human exchange is the capacity to empathize with the innermost states of other human beings as well as an exchange of emotions, visions, things that make us uniquely human; the kind of things that cannot be easily, if at all, translated into objective bits of information.

Let us assume that each of us possesses a personal computer which helps us with everything we do. Would this represent an extension of our freedom? I respectfully submit that it would not. On the contrary it would curtail our freedom. Let me explain.

Freedom is equivalent to the ability of exercising choices not outlined for you but chosen by you. Freedom is the privilege of being at one with your human nature. The more structured the environment, the less choices (in the genuine sense) we possess. The computerized environment will be highly structured; one of the most structured in history. So structured will it, in fact, be that from the standpoint of traditional freedom, a perfectly computerized environment will be a form of electronic prison. Every exchange will have to be performed according to the rules of the computers; no room for spontaneity, improvisation, quirkiness, the unexpected, the unstructured. As Ivan Mich says: "Whatever structurally does not fit the logic of machines is effectively filtered from a culture dominated by their use." How can you talk about freedom in such circumstances?

Furthermore, you cannot have freedom without exercising responsibility. You cannot exercise responsibility if everything is done for you. Freedom is the capacity to act when your action springs from responsibility. Your responsibility is annihilated when you are an appendage to computers and robots; and so is your freedom.

Let us look at the concept of responsibility in the context of the information Society, and see whether the Information Society is likely to enhance our responsibility, or on the contrary, stifle it. Responsibility is one of the most peculiar concepts of our language, and of our moral universe. It is very hard to define; even harder to live without. There is no logical necessity or even natural necessity to assume responsibility. Yet we render ourselves less than human when we do not assume it. Responsibility is one of those invisible human forces—like will power—for which there is no logical or natural necessity, but without which human history is inconceivable.

In the consumer society we want to escape from responsibility assuming that without it our lives will be easier and better; whereas in fact our lives become shallower and cheaper. Like faith, responsibility enhances the variety of our existence when we possess it, or diminishes us when we lack it. What blood is to the body, responsibility is to the spirit.

To be a human being is to live in the state of responsibility. When we are unable to be responsible, we are, in a sense, annihilating our status as human beings. Those chosen by the gods are those who possess a sense of responsibility bordering on obsession, like the Buddha or Jesus. Forsaken by the gods are those who are void of the sense of responsibility-even for their own lives. Great spiritual leaders of mankind, as well as great social and political leaders, are stigmatized with the enhanced sense of responsibility.

The sense of responsibility is not limited to the great of this world. It is known to everybody. For what is the awareness of "the wasted life" if not the recognition that each of us is a carrier of responsibility which goes beyond the boundaries of our little egos and our daily struggles.

Responsibility seen in the larger cosmic plan is a late acquisition of evolution. It comes about as consciousness becomes self-consciousness, and furthermore, as self-consciousness (in attempting to refine itself) takes upon itself the moral cause: the burden of responsibility for the rest. Responsibility so conceived is a form of altruism. The tendency to escape from responsibility is a purely biological impulse, a self-serving gesture, a form of egoism. Therefore, those two tendencies, the altruistic (accepting the responsibility for all), and egoistic (escaping from it into the shell of our own ego), are continually fighting each other within us. And each of us knows the agony of this fight.

When we observe the lives of great men and women, the lives that arc outstanding and fulfilled, we cannot help noticing that they were invariably inspired by a great sense of responsibility. Those who sacrificed themselves in the name of this responsibility did not have the sense of a wasted life. Their example is received as something noble and inspiring. The sense of responsibility is now built into our psychic structure as an attribute of human existence, and a positive force.

To be human is to live in the state of responsibility. However, through the systematic separation of human beings from the cycles of nature, as well as through the process of delegating important decisions to experts, contemporary technology has been systematically disengaging us from life. Our lives have been made increasingly disconnected, atomized and trivialized. This particular aspect of present technology makes it more detrimental to the future of the human race than any particular technological disaster. (I am, for the moment, disregarding the destruction of eco-habitats and human societies through excessive reliance upon the machine.)

Responsibility and technology must, at this time of history, be considered vis-à-vis each other. Technology that systematically deprives us of responsibility (by delegating everything to experts), represents the victory of evil. For if everything is done for us, if we cannot exercise our responsibility, we are no longer human. Responsibility is the cornerstone of our status as human and spiritual beings.

You can now clearly see what my arguments are aiming at: to show that in so far as the Information Society (epitomised in the computers) takes over and deprives us of responsibility, and dwarfs our status as human beings. It is a pity, and indeed a blindness of our times, that the proponents of the computerised age never address themselves to this problem.

Wisdom Society

All society worthy of the name ‘society' is human society, is society for us, humans, and not for smooth functioning of efficient computers. It may have dawned on some of us that what I am advocating is not so much the Information Society as the Wisdom Society. Our dilemma has been beautifully summarised by T.S. Ellott who said, some fifty years ago: "Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" We need wisdom in order to be responsible. We need wisdom to manage our information. At present we have super abundance of information which we are unable to digest. As a society we are over-informed and under-enlightened.

Henryk Skolimowski is Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Humanities at the University of Michigan and visiting Professor at St Antony's College, Oxford. He is author of many articles and books, such as Ecological Humanism and Ecophilosophy.

He is an Associate Editor of The Ecologist and his main interest lies in the development of post-industrial ethic and a post-industrial society.