A television commentator recently made a remark that has caused me to ponder once again some trends in our culture and in the way we communicate. With tongue in cheek, he predicted that, in the not too distant future, the phrase, “I don’t know”—as a natural, casual response to factual questions in conversations—might become obsolete. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
The commentator explained that nowadays more and more people, when a gap in their knowledge is revealed, simply go to their mobile phones and search for the answer, or they ask Siri or Alexa to play the role of encyclopedic sage. Siri, how old is Paul McCartney? Often, an answer materializes quickly: He’s 76! Perhaps the searcher gets both a jolt of serotonin and an ego boost from dodging a potential stumper. This segment of cocktail party chatter is enhanced and efficiently concluded. Everybody comes away satisfied, feeling smarter.
I shouldn’t get too nervous about this. After all, robust curiosity and the search for truth and the encouragement of fruitful conversations are all things I believe in. Certainly, no harm has been done by an iPhone or Siri reflex that discovers Paul McCartney’s age.
But I don’t want that reflex to spread too widely, especially when the questions become more complicated. Or when they become more akin to the inquiries that used to send me to a book or library, or to a friend or family member. Or to an acquaintance with particular expertise (as with the “lifelines” Regis Philbin offered on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”).
Sometimes there’s a healthy sense of humility and responsibility, or an impulse for engagement, that comes from saying “I don’t know.” Not always. Siri or the human truth-seeker might make the same mistake we’ve all committed—settling for the instant answer or the easy answer or the first answer that pops up from a search engine. Or an answer without context, or one that quashes our instinct to find out more or seek alternative answers. Sometimes there are no alternative answers. Paul is 76.
I merely suggest that a conversation might bear the most fruit when a question triggers a cascade of answer, follow-up question, follow-up answer, plus an extra jolt of adrenalin from curiosity, surprise, and the entertainment of learning. It’s fun to wonder, “When is Paul’s birthday?” It’s fun to learn he’ll be 77 tomorrow!
Siri, is there a God? I tried that one for kicks. She answered correctly: “I’m really not equipped to answer such questions.” We still must tackle these explorations ourselves. However, there’s a part of me that wonders if, someday, the algorithms informing some of our technology might be tweaked to generate bolder, less humble answers, based on empirical evidence from selected journals or from crowd-sourcing among selected crowds, or from the determinations of future search-meisters. Even worse, might users of the technology tend to assume that, well, if Siri doesn’t know the answer despite her access to all the world’s databases, is it inefficient or unproductive to search elsewhere—or even to ask?
Some of history’s best conversations, communities and collaborations must have been started when someone asked a question, someone else said, “I don’t know,” and multiple people jumped in and said things like: “That’s a good question.” Or “I’ve wondered that myself.” Or even better, “Let’s look into that together.”
The book I’ve written, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, is largely about our society’s need to rediscover the joy of looking for answers together. We open the door to that pleasure when we admit to not knowing all the answers, to seeing the complexity of human beings and the influences we face, internally and externally. The adventure is shortcircuited when we think we know all the answers or we exclude whole groups of people deemed to offer nothing that deepens our understanding. We certainly shortcircuit our seeking of new insights and our solving of pressing problems if we settle for a Siri one-liner or a label popularized by our favorite media or our own, handy pre-conceived notions.
In fairness, there’s one more danger that must be mentioned. While I’m singing the praises of the phrase, “I don’t know,” I insist we must make it the beginning, not the end, of our interactive explorations. Ignorance is not bliss, and neither is indifference. By all means, we should reach out and ask Siri for her input if the alternative is simply to draw inward. We might say, “Paul Is definitely 52 in my reality,” or “Paul is timeless and that’s enough for me.” We might take shortcuts like, “I’m agnostic on that God thing, so let’s leave it at that,” or even “God is a concept, just like John Lennon said.”
Of course, most of the questions we encounter are somewhere between theology and Paul McCartney trivia; we do ourselves an injustice if we evade them by retreating into our separate bubbles of relativism and confirmation bias. We miss the great fun of a multi-faceted discussion or the exploration of an enduring mystery or the acknowledgment of paradox in human experiences of truth.
We can break through our know-it-all bubbles in various ways, sometimes driven by the need to solve urgent problems or by the discovery that “different” people have some compelling similarities and useful insights and multiple backgrounds which defy our application of simplistic labels to them. The all-in, complex experience of day-to-day life in community, in local organizations, in careers of service, in grass-roots expressions of policy concerns or faith-based values, and in the challenging togetherness of family activities, can also break through. Humor, if we can preserve it, is a great cure for the know-it-all syndrome.
I’ve also rediscovered that music is one way to promote authentic, productive human connections. Singing builds community. Songs stick in our minds and often come out of our mouths when we hum at the office, making them contagious. This doesn’t make us smarter, but it’s one of the things we use to break the ice when creative conversations have been frozen or made uncomfortably chilly.
So there’s the solution to my own immediate conundrum! How was I going to bring this blog post to an end while still celebrating the ongoing flow of questions and answers? I didn’t know. I let that TV commentator’s remark linger with me.
Then I Googled the phrase “I don’t know” and discovered a kindred spirit on YouTube. I learned Paul McCartney didn’t know either. Of course, he came at it from a different perspective, and he expressed it in a more creative, evocative, ice-breaking way. I enjoyed listening to his approach to the situation, which did not involve asking Siri anything. Now I can share his gifts with you.
Did you know Paul’s 76 years old? Anyway, I hope you’ll want to learn more than that. Click on the video above, which is only a start. We’ve all got so many lessons to learn, he points out, but it’s alright! That message of more challenges, conversations, and creativity still awaiting us is music to my ears.