When ‘Google’ became a verb, and not just a search engine, we knew that we were witnessing a dramatic shift in the way we access information. In the old days, it used to be the encyclopedias that opened the door to true enlightenment. Now, for every inquiry, we google it and it takes us to Wikipedia and we read what the collective wisdom says on any one topic. Its all so easy.
Knowledge used to be what you went to college to acquire, or you bought books to read. Now its at your fingertips. But with that shift comes a deeper dilemma. If we have so democratized access to knowing, are we as citizens any better off, or any the wiser? The answer is No, because what use is knowledge if we don’t know what it means.
I recall having lunch with a friend who works at the US Treasury some 18 months back and her telling me that the managers were working 18 hour days in a panic because they were getting economic data and indicators that were all over the map. They hadn’t seen the pattern before, or didn’t know if there was a pattern behind the figures. Were these signs of a recession or just an aberration? They were awash in data and none the wiser. Of course, now we know.
Another telling example is the various 9-11 reports, official and unofficial, that all say the same thing, that we had all the clues to identify who the potential terrorists were, and we even had strong hints as to their murderous intentions, but the data was never shared to be pieced together by the various agencies to work out what was going on. The same story is told about Pearl Harbor.
Our contemporary dilemma is no longer simple ignorance. We can google away a lot of that. What we really desperately need is understanding, or getting a larger sense of what it all means? Whether its the fate of the economy, or the fate of the planet, the data lends itself to contradictory explanations. Things as complex as that don’t add up to one simple answer. We have to develop a new interpretive mind, and evolve more effective tools for dealing with complexity, chaos and the chain causality we experience in networks. We are rarely dealing with only one thing anymore. What we decide to do in Afghanistan will effect what happens in Pakistan, and what happens in Pakistan will feed in to what Iran does, etc. Foreign policy used to be a game of chess. Now its a game of dominos.
Knowledge is overrated. Sometimes, knowing all the facts that there are to be known only paralyzes us further because we see too many options. And it is now a tactic of defense. When some whistle blower alleges corruption, a department or corporation will release a blizzard of documents and emails and say-you want to know, take that, take all of it. Good luck in finding the needle in that haystack.
That is why the narrative question of “What is the story of the Story?” is so important. It moves us to second level meaning making. We are always using a bigger story to make sense of a smaller story. And its that meta level of meaning making that our data rich-meaning poor age demands.
What prompted my thinking on this topic was a new book coming out soon from a colleague, Michael Margolis. He is a New York marketing and branding guru. He encourages us all to assume the mind of Henry the Navigator, and find new maps to find our way. I think he is right. The critical question that used to determine if we got the job, or if we passed the exams was-’What do you know?’ Now the critical question is “What does it mean?’ We don’t need investigators, we need interpreters. Michael is a good one.