A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to hear some of the speakers from the event “Silicon Valley Comes to the UK” in Cambridge. Several of the speakers talked of the amazing possibilities opening up with the availability of large data sets that effectively index information, language, and the world itself. It got me thinking about the nature of information, knowledge, and wisdom, and my thoughts turned, of course, to the old giant Vafþrúðnir (Vaf-thruth-neer).
In the Old Norse poem Vafþrúðnismál (Vaf-thruth-nis-maul)—The Sayings of Vafþrúðnir—the god Óðin (O-thin) comes to the giant Vafþrúðnir in disguise. Both are powerful figures in body and mind, but Óðin challenges Vafþrúðnir not to a contest of strength, but to one of wisdom.
The giant agrees, but it is his hall and his rules. They set the terms of the competition: he who loses the battle of wisdom shall forfeit his head. The cultural implications of this wager are great. Strength without wisdom is useless; the strong fool is as good as dead.
The giant does not know, of course, that he battles against Óðin, and is therefore doomed to fail. But Óðin finds a dauntless opponent in the giant as he crafts riddle after riddle, and must win in a rather sneaky way. He asks a question to which only he knows the answer: What did Óðin whisper into the ear of Baldr when he was laid on the funeral pyre? Upon hearing the question, the giant realises that his opponent must be Óðin, for only Óðin would know the answer to this question. Aware of his error, he concedes defeat.
In the Q&A period after the final session of the Silicon Valley Comes to the UK conference, one person asked about what skill-set will be required in the coming years of computer-based living as opposed to the skill-sets cultivated in years past.
The first answer came from Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, who said that memory and memorizing would no longer be necessary, and instead people would only need to know how to navigate data and find the information they need in the moment. Delivered to an audience largely comprised of current Cambridge students, this answer did not seem to sit well with the crowd.
After a brief, half-hearted challenge from Megan Smith at Google, Andrew McLaughlin of Civic Commons championed the opposition to Hoffman, saying that no matter how readily available information and data in the coming years may become, nothing can match the human being’s ability to integrate and synthesize information into something newer and better. Memorizing, he said, would still be important not for mechanical recollection of facts, but for the pathways it opens up in the human mind that facilitate true growth, unmatched by any program or computer.
The response received loud applause from the audience. Without the processes that real learning initialises within an individual, what purpose do the advancements in data storage and processing actually present mankind? Information has always been free. Everything we know as a species we have learned through observation, exploration, and experimentation. The information has always been there; we just needed eyes to see it, like Newton beneath the apple tree. The effort required to unearth and organise that information, however, speaks to the costliness of knowledge. Knowledge is not just about possessing information, but also about possessing methods and means of storing, processing, and using that information. It requires action. Owning an encyclopedia is useless if one never reads it, much like the uncut pages of the books in Gatsby’s library. Information is just potential, useless unless developed into knowledge, and then used with knowledge.
And then we get to wisdom. Wisdom is yet another step further, a kind of combination of knowledge and experience that transcends the articulable. Knowledge can be traded, bought, sold, and passed on; wisdom must be developed within each and every person individually. Knowledge is also limited to a specific subject area, whereas wisdom applies across the range of human experience. And that is precisely why no matter how advanced data processing and applications become in the years ahead, they ultimately have nothing to do with the internal advancement of each human being that makes life worth living.
Wisdom will always be our rarest and most expensive commodity. In our quest to explore the applications of data, we must be sure we do not neglect the importance of wisdom and lose our heads like the giant Vafþrúðnir.