Articles 05/05/2020

Overcoming Scarcity in the midst of excess

In the Fifteenth Century, Johannes Gutenberg accelerated the circulation of knowledge by inventing the printing press. Previously written by hand at Medieval monasteries, the Bible became the first book printed for mass distribution.  

So began developments toward our Modern Age and Information Society shaped by the ubiquitous role of the Internet. For the first time in human history, information has evolved from a scarce resource to an abundant (if not unlimited) tool.   

Paradoxically, human development lags in comparison to technological advances, and may even hamper its progress. Faced with so much information, many people respond nonsensically and, in some cases, with utter indifference toward accepted facts and truths.

While new technologies have undoubtedly disrupted living patterns and created unusual circumstances, our collective inability to process information in abundance has produced absurd situations that only strengthen our most harmful primitive instincts. All the while, attributes deemed crucial for keeping society together now fall as victims by the wayside.  

The first victim is the truth because, despite the ability to gather accurate and reliable information, the “fake news” phenomenon has provoked a resurgence of lies, inaccuracies and falsities.

The second is humility. A quick on-line search uncovers numerous “specialists” in all domains (including, to our collective surprise, many friends, relatives and acquaintances) preaching on complex matters in an authoritarian, categorical and insistent way. These “experts” on Facebook, “wise ones” on Whatsapp and “oracles” on Instagram present, with enviable self-confidence, immediate solutions to topics ranging from the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19 to the limits of judicial activism in the constitutional order, and even the consequences of globalization on destabilizing the environment, among countless other subjects.

The third is a sense of moderation, which disappears with every presidential tweet and is further exacerbated by certain media segments valuing ideology over facts and confusion over explanation. In the background, interest groups profit from the general cacophony to quietly advance their often nefarious agendas. 

The fourth is intellectual discourse, as true specialists are sidelined in favor of digital “influencers” who garner praise from their followers, despite an obvious lack of content. These charlatans make their living by repeating unending one-sided banalities, “alternative facts” and crude vulgarities.   

The fifth is deep thinking and analysis, not only based on the restricted number of characters in each message, but also because of the regrettable and harmful decision (whether conscious or not) by a critical mass of people to accept a dumbed-down level of discourse on humanity’s relevant topics.

The sixth is democracy itself, which should come as no surprise, given the rise of irresponsible, unprincipled and less-than-prepared leadership, both inside government and throughout civil society, intent on using that same “information” to dominate and control when, in fact, our newfound access to data should serve as a liberating force.

The list of victims continues infinitely, as we collectively stumble through a world of abundant information, while lacking the ability and foresight to transform it into actual knowledge, let alone wisdom. Only the latter would confirm that ideological narrative does not trump facts, arrogance remains no substitute for knowledge, and superficiality offers no viable road to solving the modern world’s complex problems. Humanity’s best hope at lasting peace and democracy lies in combining ever-scarcer moderation with the thoughtful and effective use of increasingly-abundant information.


André de Almeida