The Search for Wisdom in a Digital Era

blogimage2On a beautiful day in the early 1990s, I gave my Native Studies senior secondary students a transformative experience, one available to human beings since the dawn of storytelling around the campfire. We travelled to Six Nations on the Grand River to hear one of the only two public recitations in English of the Great Law of Peace, by the late Chief Jacob Thomas. The Great Law took several days to recite fully. My students only heard part of it. But what a memorial day!

They became so captivated by this remarkable Cayuga elder’s power of memory and storytelling that they wanted to stay longer, and protested leaving. Indeed, my students were taken by surprise at their own capacity – now awakened – to become so deeply engaged at all in regard to an older person’s lengthy oration.

Would doing so even be possible today? I say, yes. The reason is simple. Awakening the rivers of our own inner ways of knowing requires the choice, and wisdom, to make the time for deeper engagement, reflection, and the eventual gift of transformation. Adults responsible for the care and education of children need to offer such experiential types of learning to them from the earliest age, to illuminate the world in its bounty of wisdom.

As a pathway to understanding how to restore more balance in our stressed-out lives, I suggest we examine the differences between information, knowledge and wisdom. For those of you who have been reading my blog posts, you may have observed that I like to look at the big picture and the root causes, rather than symptoms, of where we are at.

That exploration requires looking back in time to make sense of how we got to the present and, importantly, recognize our capabilities to create a more peaceful future, within and around us. That task takes time and reflection. That task is why I do not write short blog posts, but instead enjoy sharing knowledge, which takes longer.

In regard to our digital era at this historic moment, I want to challenge the litany of woe voiced today by teachers, parents, employers, and anyone else, who wrings their hands, and bangs their head on the wall, in exasperation from trying to get focused attention from our youth.

Such frustration is understandable. But let us not point the fingers of blame at the youth. What is happening to the minds of the young is a major social issue (a topic for another day). Several generations, however, are culpable in co-creating today’s cultural environment of technological enchantment as our societal priority.

The ubiquitous presence of technical gadgets 24/7 has materialized because of our unquestioning acceptance. When I use terms such as “we” and “our,” it is in reference to what Jung identified as our “collective unconscious.” We have the free will and intelligence, nevertheless, to make wiser choices in our investment of time.

The seeds of our present-day “24/7 lifestyle” could be said to have been planted during the invention of electricity and the light bulb. No longer did daytime work stop when the sun set, kerosene lamps and candles then lit for evening activities.

Yet, through the past quarter century, without a doubt, the trajectory of “information overload” has instilled a sense of feeling overwhelmed since the internet became as central to our lives as television, radio and the telephone.

“Information” could be defined as a string of data or sound bites, disconnected, then sometimes linked with more units of information, in a linear, one-dimensional direction. Consider the famous statement voiced in Dragnet, on radio and TV through the 1950s originally, by fictional policeman Joe Friday: “All I want are the facts, ma’am.” The prime example today would be the strings of “tweets,” 140 characters at a time.

“Knowledge,” however, has height, depth and breadth, and therefore is multidimensional. Whereas information is quick and instant, as an event, the quality of knowledge increases along a journey through time as a process.

The attainment of knowledge is two-fold. It requires the seeker to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, in other words, “become knowledgeable” enough to make meaning of the layers and different sources of information that, woven together, offer more complex levels of insight and awareness – that is, greater knowledge.

Citing the fictional detective Joe Friday, again, his job required him to be equipped with knowledge skills, such as problem solving, to make meaning of the different facts given to him that could provide insights to solve criminal cases.

Another distinction between information and knowledge is: information requires “analysis” to make meaning of it. Knowledge, however, goes further. Through the process of gathering information, the knowledge accumulated requires “synthesis.” To clarify, synthesis is the process that opens up new levels of meaning and enlightenment.

In other words, the sum is larger than the parts, taking us to new levels of understanding on a spiral journey. That multidimensional journey is how our consciousness is transformed, leaving the flatland of one-dimensional thinking behind.

“Wisdom” is the eventual outcome, potentially yet not guaranteed. The reason is that the onus for learning is on the seeker, to be open-minded to develop higher qualities in regard to how to interpret and practice higher, deeper, and more expansive, levels of understanding.

Wisdom itself is a higher quality. It therefore requires more than intellectual understanding, and essentially involves the heart and, in its fullest expression, the inclusion of the soul. I already have elaborated on wisdom in a previous blog post, and invite you to read “Wisdom That Lies Beneath – Inner Ways of Knowing.”

To revisit what I suggested above: Information is an event, or a series of events; knowledge is a process that stitches together information to make meaning; and wisdom is the possible outcome, depending upon how we respond or, conversely, react to the knowledge gathered and synthesized.

Now, you may ask, how do my suggested distinctions between information, knowledge and wisdom relate to digital media?

Digital technologies, similar to forms of technology generally, in and of themselves, are not the problem nor the cause of society being out of balance. Western culture has been out of balance for a long time, and several of my earlier blog posts have addressed the reasons why.

The problem resides in the human mind, for example, how and why we are socialized in regard to what and whom we value in each historic era. The question, ultimately, is: What motivates us to make the choices we do in the ways we use our minds creatively. More specifically, what are the purposes for which we use respective technologies? Are the intended uses beneficial (and if so, for whom?), or harmful?

The possible answers are complicated, because no technology is “value neutral.” Even when technology initially is well-intentioned, as sure as night follows day, someone will figure out self-serving ways to misuse it, which includes over-using it.

What also makes the problem complicated is human nature, that can reduce us to choose the easier path of conformity, rather than choose the road less travelled toward our human potential.

Serendipitously, looking up the film Baraka directed by Ron Fricke, I discovered a deeply moving comment by hanah, a young adult. Her example gives me hope that youth truly yearn for more from life, when they have not yet had their souls wounded by today’s frenzied pace. For these youth, may they find healing someday through an opportunity that takes them on a quest to discover who they can be. Here is hanah, unedited:

“…as a teenager i find that most people my age are ignorant and oblivious to how amazing life and nature really is, and it personally makes me angry to see technogly dominating peoples lives and how destructive it can be. i loved the film, and i feel like the word love is way to over used but if there was a word that could describe how i felt about this film id use it, maybe ill make my own word up. most the people in my class fell asleep or chattered about irrelevant things, this just shows how distant and away we are from one another, as a result of technology, and many more factors. we all have to take one day at a time, and appriciate the things that really matter, and try to change the problems in the world eg poverty, war. we need to work together, and respect one another. thanks fricke for helping open my eyes. coming from australia and reading all the comments im so glad that people all over the world have viewed this gift.”

Hanah’s heartfelt response, to a non-verbal documentary feature that is a masterpiece about our beautiful planet, expresses wisdom that comes from the heart. Bless her. She identifies the struggle of youth today to retain any integrity about who they can be, at a soul level, against the onslaught of societal forces such as peer pressure and the mindless (instead of life-affirming) uses of social media.

Within and across all generations, we can work together to restore balance and meaningfulness to our lives.

For inspiration, I invite you to browse my list of Links, to explore organizations in which the human family, intergenerationally and across cultures, can come together, learn, play and discover new (and revitalized ancient) ways to walk on this earth as biological, cognizant and spiritual beings.

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