In his book ‘Free Speech’, Timothy Garton Ash proposes the following principle related to knowledge: ‘We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge.’ In his attempt to delineate the contours of his liberal ‘open society, the former journalist turned academic acknowledges the central place played by knowledge in every aspect of human life and endeavour. Yet, in an age driven by computer technology, it is essential to be aware of the differences existing between ‘data’, ‘information’, ‘knowledge’ and what the systems theorist, Russell Ackoff, does not hesitate to call ‘wisdom’ in a pyramid analogy which may prove a hidden homage to Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’.
Ackoff’s pyramid can be regarded as an oversimplification of the countless ways by which we learn about ourselves and the external world. There is no place, here, for the realm of sensations and emotions as if all sources of alleged ‘knowledge’ had first to be processed electronically before their mental consumption by a passive receiver. Garton Ash is rightly concerned with the limits that can be tolerated if we are given free access to cyber information. As private individuals, are we entitled to be privy to the most top secret ‘information’, the latter word implying the very possibility of differing interpretations concerning the source(s) and reliability of such ‘truth claims’. Furthermore, isn’t too much ill-digested ‘information’ the most secure way to acquire ‘Knowledge’?
Tomorrow’s robots, equipped with artificial intelligence are more likely to be fed millions of random data than ready-made wisdom. Having dispensed with flesh and bones teachers and tutors, these same robots will happily serve whoever feeds their electronic circuits. As the computer scientist Joseph Wizenbaum warns: ‘since we do not now have any ways of making computers wise, we ought not now give computers tasks that demand wisdom.’ If open 24/7 information has so far highlighted one thing, it is that a society can lose all common sense when bombarded with outrageously self-contradictory ‘stories’, cynically passed on as bona fide ‘truths’. Garton Ash still wants to believe in the power of self-restraint and tolerance to achieve his dream of a civilised cyberworld.
But what, if one day, cyber guardians are required to ensure the peaceful coexistence of incompatible opinions and political ideologies, who will be these guardians and what will be the source of their legitimacy and power?