How Slow Knowledge can save us in the Information Age.

The difference between information and wisdom.

We are living in an era of free information that can be transferred at a near instant. We are inundated with statistics, articles, images and facts that in their essence define our modern culture.

The twentieth century has seen the rise of global connectivity unlike ever before, causing the lines of community to blur. You can chat with your friends in Portugal or China in seconds – sharing the bits and pieces of your lives that feel relevant to one another.

This is having a polarizing effect on our thinking.

On the one hand our thoughts and information when derived from the same sources and beginning to homogenize faster than ever before. The rate of acclimation and learning of new technology – like Pokemon GO for example, is within days. On the other hand there is a burgeoning sense of global responsibility, wherein acting locally is deeply interconnected to the planetary life web.

The sheer increase in the velocity of knowledge is widely accepted as evidence of human progress. However a lot of the “ailments that we face as a contemporary society can be attributed to knowledge acquired and applied before we had time to think through it carefully.”

We we’re so excited about the discovery of oil that we never had time to discover problems related to burning it – like acid rain or climate change. We rushed into high-input agriculture without considering its effects on erosion or the social costs it would have on displacing farmers or human health.

Our economy is driven by what David Orr calls fast knowledge. It rests on these assumptions:

  • Only that which can be measured is true knowledge
  • The more we have the better
  • Knowledge that lends itself to use is superior to that which is merely contemplative
  • The scale of effects of applied knowledge is unimportant
  • There are no significant distinctions between information and knowledge
  • Wisdom is an undefinable, hence unimportant category
  • There are no limits to our ability to assimilate growing mountains of information, and none to our ability to separate essential knowledge from that which is trivial or even dangerous
  • We will be able to retrieve the right bit of knowledge at the right time and fit it into its proper context
  • We will not forget old knowledge, but if we do, the new will be better than the old
  • Whatever mistakes and blunders occur along the way can be rectified by yet more knowledge
  • The acquisition of knowledge carries with it no obligation to see that it is responsibly used
  • All knowledge is general in nature, not specific or limited by particular places, times and circumstances

These assumptions are effective and powerful – they are what keep the powerful in power. They each play a role in reshaping the way we do research and makes changes to education, community, culture, lifestyle, transportation, weapons and politics. They must be measurable in order to be legitimate.

I wonder if I can light a cigar with my accumulated wealth.

Fast knowledge is the accumulation research into quick action. Its what we call as designers “prototyping.” For this reason prototypes are precisely useful. They allow you to test a guess without causing irreversible damage. What we’ve seen over the last century is a lack of proper testing without asking the right questions – resting on the assumption that more is better.

This is a direct threat to sustainability for two reasons.

  1. The application of fast knowledge generates complicated problems much faster than we can identify and respond to them.
  2. The organization of knowledge by minute division of labor further limits our capacity to comprehend the effects we’re having on whole systems when the application of fast knowledge in one are creates problems somewhere else at a later time.

We’re essentially forced to play catch up with ourselves.

This is a social trap: benefits occur for some in one place and hurt others elsewhere. Hence climate change, global inequality and the plethora of other problems we face as a planet and a species.

Slow Knowledge

The only knowledge we’ve ever really been able to trust, with a solid track record for doing the most good is slow knowledge. This is knowledge that has been shaped and calibrated to fit a particular ecological and cultural context. The aim being resilience, harmony and the preservation of patterns that connect.

Orr points to Evolution as an example: “Except for rare episodes of punctuated equilibrium, evolution seems to work by the slow trial and error testing of small changes. Nature seldom, if ever, bets it all on a single throw of the dice.”

Slow knowledge rests on the following assumptions:

  • Wisdom, not cleverness, is the proper aim of all true learning
  • The velocity of knowledge can be inversely related to the acquisition of wisdom
  • The careless application of knowledge can destroy the conditions that permit knowledge of any kind to flourish (a nuclear war, for example, made possible by the study of physics, would be detrimental to the further study of physics)
  • What ails us has less to do with the lack of knowledge but with too much irrelevant knowledge and the difficulty of assimilation, retrieval, and application as well as the lack of compassion and good judgement
  • The rising volume of knowledge cannot compensate for a rising volume of errors caused by malfeasance and stupidity generated in large part by inappropriate knowledge
  • Human ignorance is not an entirely solvable problem; it is, rather, an inescapable part of the human condition

Unlike fast knowledge generated in university, think-tanks and corporations, slow knowledge arises more incrementally through community learning motivated more by affection to place and curiosity than greed or ambition.

So here is a list of distinctions Orr lists off for us:

  1. Fast knowledge is focused on solving problems, usually with a technological fix; slow knowledge has to do with avoiding problems in the first place.
  2. Fast knowledge deals with discrete problems, whereas slow knowledge deals with context, patterns, and connections.
  3. Fast knowledge is about know-how; slow knowledge is about know-how and know-why.
  4. Fast knowledge is about competitive edges and individual/organizational profit; slow knowledge is about community prosperity.
  5. Fast knowledge is mostly linear; slow knowledge is complex and ecological.
  6. Fast knowledge is characterized by power and instability; slow knowledge is known by its elegance, complexity and resilience.
  7. Fast knowledge is often regarded as private property; slow knowledge is owned by no one.

Slow knowledge occurs as a co-evolutionary process among humans, other species and shared habitat.

Fast knowledge is often abstract and the theoretical, engaging only a portion of the mind.

There are appropriate times for both, but we must remember that we are in our current predicament because of fast knowledge. We are not quick or smart enough to micro manage every action we take.

We need to strive to create more resilient systems that rely on slow knowledge. This tried and true knowledge we’ve acquired over time and have tested time and time again.

So instead of screaming louder, we should produce more engaging content.

Instead of chatting endlessly, we should talk with more intention.

And instead of trying to talk faster, we need listen more intently.

Someone wise once said to me you can’t listen with your mouth open.

“There is no hurry, there is no hurry whatsoever.” -Erwin Chargaff

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