What Happens When We Don’t Know?
The need to know “what really happened” is fundamental to being human.
- It is biological, it is survival, we become aware of danger and want to know how to stay away.
- It is social, the social contract, we have one with one another and when it’s violated those who abuse the rest must be held accountable.
- It is the need for meaning: We need to make sense of what we see in this world, sort out the good and the bad, and perform our highest function. This is to contribute in some way toward making the world better, or at least — as my great-grandfather, may he rest in peace, used to say — “don’t make the world worse.”
Sometimes a tragedy never comes to light. Its victims are hidden, or silenced and the world does not become aware of the injustice.
Other times, a case is declared “solved,” someone is even convicted of a crime, and justice appears to have been done. Yet as we well know, the wrong person may be made to pay while the perpetrator gets away with it. This in fact may be worse than not knowing at all, because the task is to untangle the lie — which may already be socially accepted — and start all over again, from scratch.
All the time, information is incomplete, necessarily so, because we simply cannot know everything.
But no matter how limited the clues, people will string together what they think they do know. This is how we achieve closure and move forward, salving the existential anxiety that comes from being aware of a problem but not quite aware of where it’s coming from or how to fix it.
Finally, there are times when we absolutely know a thing, because we all saw it happen together. But although we may have witnessed the happening, we don’t know what it means. We know what we saw, but we don’t understand the circumstances or the context.
As human beings, who communicate with one another through stories, it is important to know not just the facts of a matter but what they meant to the people involved.
Let us assume that, once in a while, we do achieve a perfect state of knowing. What then? What do we do with all the information?
It is something we don’t like to think about. Because when we find out the truth, it’s ugly more often than not. Which means that our sense of order is shattered.
That’s why you sometimes see that people faint, or scream, or erupt in sudden violence, when they can’t avoid a terrible truth. We would much rather live in denial, just block it all out and go on, than really allow ourselves to see.
Truth cannot be escaped anymore, though. We are living in a different time now — the age of ubiquitous Internet connections, the age of ubiquitous connection to social media, the age of information-sharing, crowdsourcing and transparency.
Our information is out there. Our smartphones, our computers, and, increasingly, our cars, homes, and other everyday materials we use are all wired to the grid. Our currency is connected. Our shopping habits are monitored. Paper is gone and in its place is a series of electronic moments, easily recorded. Cameras pervade our world.
The capacity of machines to analyze our behavior individually and track it collectively is only growing by the day. Where before it may have been possible for someone to leave no footprints behind, today such an ability is rare.
And so the result is that we will soon know more than any of us ever thought was possible. Some of it will no doubt enlighten us and help us end the horrors of poverty, of human slavery, of illness, of homelessness and ill health.
But a lot of it will be information that traumatizes us. We will, in fact, learn a lot of things that were previously hidden, the capacity of human beings to portray themselves well on the one hand while secretly engaging in terrible acts on the other.
It may seem that the transition from darkness to light (ignorance to knowledge) will be linear, but I suspect that it will more likely be chaotic.
That is why, as we move toward greater and greater awareness, it is crucial that we stay grounded. That we insist on a system of law and order. That we enforce independent mechanisms to ensure the integrity of those we trust to carry out justice.
All throughout history, the world has witnessed various prophets of doom and gloom. But I do not believe it has to go this way. We can choose enlightenment, peace and mutual prosperity, through mutual cooperation, instead.
Our social contract depends on truth, and the fair administration of justice.
All opinions my own.