The Power of Not Knowing
by Tobias van Schneider
first appeared ✍🏼 on my personal blog
It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your children are?
This phrase, coined in the 1960s, reminded parents to look after their children during an especially riotous time in the United States. When the PSA (Public Service Announcement) appeared on parents’ TV screens, they could not text their children to find their whereabouts. They could not check Find My Friends app. They could call around and hope their kids, or someone who knew them, were somewhere near the telephone that rang.
It’s 7 PM. Do you know if your house is locked?
It’s 3:00 PM. Do you know how many calories you’ve burned today?
It’s 1:30 PM. Do you know what your best friend ate for lunch?
It’s 6 AM. Do you know what the president tweeted last night? Do you know how many hours of deep sleep you got? Do you know how much energy your fridge is using? Do you know how many steps you’ve taken this week? Do you know what’s happening in Syria? Do you know what your toothpaste preference says about your sex life?
Just over 50 years after a PSA asked parents if they knew where their own kids were, we can know just about anything we want to know, at any time. About our lives. About the lives of others. About current events or the current location of our children. We have the Internet, Apple Watches, apps. We’ve got data. Loads of it. That data lets us know ourselves so intimately, we can accurately predict what time we will take our next shit.
The implied promise, or one of them, is that data gives us peace of mind. We sacrifice our privacy for it, even pay for it. We are told that the more we know, the better off we will be. Scientia potentia est. That means “knowledge is power” in Latin, a phrase commonly attributed to Francis Bacon. I know because Google gave me the Wikipedia page in less than 20 seconds. Google also told me that our brains process 34 gigabytes of information per day on average. I beg the question, Mr. Bacon: Is there such a thing as too much knowledge?
Others have already posed the same question, yet we shrug and strap devices to our arms all the same. We are an automated species, tapping through Snapchat stories, scrolling through tweets and timelines and newsfeeds, using our watches to find our phones and our phones to find our keys. We crave information, and we expect that information to be convenient and immediate. When at dinner someone asks who the bachelor chose on season 2 of “The Bachelor,” which aired in 2002, we can instantly know it was Helene Eksterowicz. They broke up weeks later.
The value of knowledge is inarguable. Knowledge has advanced civilization age after age, from cave drawings to the printing press, the wheel to combustion engines, the Turing machine to the Fitbit. Our growth, both personally and as a society, is dependent on knowledge. And yet. Our brains are only so big, and our physical capabilities limited. Are we meant to know everything? Do we really need all this information just because it is available to us? As the saying goes: “What gets measured gets managed,” and in this case it gets managed by the computing power of our brain. When do we short circuit?
Information overload means multi-tasking, skimming, shallow interactions with the world in general. This is the more apparent effect, but the less recognized one is anxiety. Check your wearable to see that your heart rate is up, and you’ll make yourself so anxious your heart rate will increase. Install 100 security cameras across your property with 20 TV screens in your living room, and you will soon assume every passerby is a potential criminal. We all know what happens when one Googles their symptoms. And amidst the political angst of the last year, many of us are seeking more information to “stay informed”, much of which feels negative.
It probably wasn’t Francis Bacon who said “what you don’t know can’t hurt you,” but there is some truth to it. Despite efforts of those parents from the 60s, there were still children causing chaos in the streets and still children getting hurt. Despite our ability in the 21st century to track each other’s locations, send texts and make Facetime calls, we still cannot know where our children are and what they are doing at every moment of every day. We can’t know everything our body is doing on all levels at all times. We cannot keep up with every piece of news happening every minute around the world. Do we even want to? At what point does information cease to lessen anxiety and restlessness, and instead increase it?
Algorithms and search engines try to help. They condense, curate and filter, hoping to present the information most relevant to us. While often presumptuous and always intrusive, this does help us cut down the flood of information (although we are still just skimming it). What Google can’t control, though, is how obsessively we will monitor and analyze our personal data. The stuff blinking by our pillows in the morning, telling us our breathing rate or sleeping positions were all above or below the night before, resulting in a more fitful, worried sleep the night after. Nobody’s counting sheep these days. We’re all counting data.
It’s said more beautifully by Dave Eggers in his novel, “The Circle:”
“We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day? You people are creating a world of ever-present daylight, and I think it will burn us all alive.
There will be no time to reflect, to sleep, to cool. Did it occur to you Circle people, ever, that we can only contain so much? Look at us. We’re tiny. Our heads are tiny, the size of melons. You want these heads of ours to contain everything the world has ever seen? It will not work.”
A world of ever-present daylight sounds like a horror movie. A world of night and day, learning and rest, knowing and not-knowing, sounds like a habitable place for humans. Because as powerful as we think we are, we are really only melon heads wearing fancy watches.
Have a wonderful week
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