With information at our fingertips you think we’d be prudent, but we’re more naïve and biased than ever. How can we grow wise instead?
The old convenience store turned into a bar and restaurant still has aisles of frozen food, wine, and soft drinks lining the interior. At the counter, you can order Indian food or nachos depending on your mood and appetite. Most people will order a drink before sauntering outdoors to a red picnic table while industrial fans drown out the conversations of patrons sitting in the summer heat.
My wife and I’s favorite pastime is to show up on Tuesday evenings and play trivia led by the well-known Geeks Who Drink bar trivia entity. If there’s one rule that’s enforced among all bar trivia in today’s society, it’s this: you cannot use your phone to Google Answers.
Before the start of every round of trivia, the MC reminds the patrons of the standard “no phone” rule. Yet each time I play trivia I battle the urge to cheat and Google the answers I’m blanking on.
Most times, my team loses with gusto, as there are other men and women who’ve been at the trivia rigmarole for years. Albeit, one evening my wife and I joined forces with two young women and wrecked shop in a round of U.S. History. One woman could name almost all U.S. presidents from memory, and I excelled in the area of military history. We ended up winning a round of beers for dominating the category, but ultimately lost to the team named “Quizzed in My Pants” (an homage to a Lonely Island song).
As we left the convenience store/bar that evening, a thought entered my mind that plagued me for several weeks and wouldn’t relent.
“What is it? You look lost in thought,” my wife remarked.
“It’s nothing,” I muttered and then cranked the engine to life.
Alexa, What’s the Meaning of Life?
Many of my friends got an Amazon Echo or a Google Home for Christmas last year. While visiting my brother during the holiday I watched as he told his ever-present A.I. to turn on some holiday music to set the mood while we sat next to a crackling fireplace.
It’s been interesting to go to parties and hear people command their virtual assistant to play music, order products, or settle debates.
“Alexa, what was the name of the Beatles first album?
“Alexa, who holds the fastest 40 yard dash record?”
“Alexa, what’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard?”
I can even ask Alexa some of the most mundane questions I’d never want to know — like the circumference of the sun — and she has the answer. But here’s where she gets stuck. She can’t answer questions that require wisdom.
You can’t ask Alexa what the meaning of life is (although she responds “42,” a funny nod to the HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy). She doesn’t know how to answer “How do you know when you’re in love?” And she definitely can’t tell you who to date, how to pick friends, how to navigate conflict at work, or how to make a good decision.
While Alexa is smart and has a plethora of facts, that’s all she has — information.
And we’re not so different anymore.
I Love Stuff That Already Agrees With Me
Leaving trivia night with my wife, I was struck by how wise some teams appeared to be. Only I recognized “wise” was the wrong word. They knew information about history, pop culture, movies, and music. Knowing information didn’t make them wise or even clever. There are clever and intelligent people who are damn fools. But no one accuses a wise man or woman of idiocy. Their very nature implies people seek them for sound and sage advice.
Once I stepped into my vehicle, the images of social media, people’s outrage over seemingly everything, and the way we align data and information with our biases (more than ever) displayed the look of consternation my wife saw. The cold realization we have a digital Alexa at our fingertips daily, yet we continue to grow in foolishness, made me wonder: How does one grow wise?
Collecting information or having knowledge doesn’t make one wise obviously, otherwise our society would be damn near approaching utopia status. Facebook alone shows us how a collection of data led to poor decisions. Instead, our societal appearance is marked by bias, fear, and folly — none of the trademarks of what makes men and women, let alone a civilization, wise. Curious about how to combat this, I took my question to friends and even posited the inquiry on our dubious collection giant, Facebook.
Among the responses I received from men and women, common themes emerged as to what wisdom is and how to acquire it. In simple terms, wisdom is knowledge — from experience or learned — put into action with beneficial outcomes towards you or those around you. But wisdom also differentiates between right/wrong and false/true. That’s problematic given that many people now post false information even though they recognize it’s deceitful. With relativism and misinformation a mark of our society, that’s when the responses started losing credibility.
The most common character trait of wisdom people agreed on was humility. This included being open to other viewpoints and situationally aware of another’s perspectives. But, if we love information — especially false information — that confirms our biases where does this leave room for wisdom? How can we develop humility when we’re so busy tearing each apart over a difference of opinion or political ideologies? As the age old wisdom literature states:
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding but only in expressing his opinion.” — Proverbs 18:2
Choosing Wisdom Over Folly
Several years ago, I challenged my best friend on a few of his viewpoints, believing I knew better. He sat listening and asked questions. Though I’d worked myself into a tizzy, he remained calm and offered counterpoints with soothing tranquility. By the end of our conversation I realized the balance in what he said and countered with. I felt like a jackass for being so snide and condescending.
It begged the question, how can I grow wise like my friend? More importantly, how can we shirk the age of information bias and develop wisdom and humility?
1. Surround yourself with wise people
The Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart, was once asked to characterize pornography. He responded, “I know it when I see it.” In the same respect, you’ll know wise people when you meet them. Each of us probably have men and women in our lives we find balanced and sage. Surround yourself with them and be open to learn as well as take rebuke.
2. Consider the Ant
The biblical book of Proverbs is one of the most well known writings on wisdom and raises questions of values, moral behavior, life, and right conduct. My mother-in-law is in seminary and gave me prudent insight into the book when I asked her advice. She pointed out that wisdom is gained by observation of the natural consequences of life. In the Proverbs, you’ll notice King Solomon begins many of his sayings with an observation (“I observed the ant.” “I observed the field of the sluggard”). When we look at cause and effect in the natural occurrences of life, we can discover shrewd insight.
3. Explore other viewpoints, but be objective
As humans we lean towards information that already aligns with what we believe or assume (this is known as confirmation bias). However, wise men and women will explore the possibility they may be wrong. By exploring another viewpoint you can learn and glean insight into areas that reinforce your beliefs or can cause you to examine your own bias. But beware! There’s often information that’s passed off as evenhanded that is nothing more than fluff.
There are several writers with large followings on Medium who write pithy articles in which you can create seven habits to a happier life or some other vague life hack. But is what they write wise? Be discerning about what you consume from those who pass knowledge. This includes me and this article. Remember, a fool has more hope than a man who’s too wise in his own eyes.
4. Learn from your mistakes
Experience is the greatest teacher in life, and coupled with failure, is an incredible learning opportunity. Ninety percent of new businesses fail, but the ten percent that make it have this in common: The team knows how to recover from defeat. This is why many older people are viewed as enlightened. They’ve had life beat the mess out of them and took the lessons to heart.
None of this will fix where we’ve steered the ship into the land of the fool and jester, but it is a conversation we should have about the danger of bias and folly in today’s digital landscape. We can allow technology to build bridges of conversation and understanding or we can use it to build the wall higher than it’s already growing. In the end, the future and our actions will tell us if we embraced wisdom or not.
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”
― Isaac Asimov.
Welcome to DumbVille (Or How We Despise Wisdom in The Modern Era) was originally published in Personal Growth on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.