This commentary is a preview of content that will appear later in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com.
“Phobia” is one of the many words which have been repurposed these days, as in “transphobe” or “homophobe.” So, appropriately, as I coin a new word—”infophobe”—I do so with some trepidation.
Here’s my concern: Any slide toward infophobia is a bad omen for all members of society. Many folks are developing an irrational aversion to the “information economy,” or the “marketplace of ideas,” or participation in the grand teamwork of seeking knowledge and wisdom.
Information, plainly defined, is nothing to be afraid of. It comprises “knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction.”
Or it is an “attribute” contained in and communicated by binary digits on the internet or the nucleotides in DNA.
Or it pertains to messages, pictures, and data which can make us stop, think, and learn.
We need, and inevitably receive, a constant flow of information about all sorts of things. The flow feeds our health, our wealth, our spiritual growth, and our freedom. Thomas Jefferson observed, “A well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.”
Despite the immensity of new information available today, or maybe because of it, more people are phobic about it. They withdraw from what they see as a danger zone, even a battle zone, where words constitute or trigger violence and where opinions can be cancelled as markers of evil.
Some quick thoughts about today’s risk of infophobia and the need to heal it:
- Ignorance can be both the result and the cause of a breakdown in the communication of information. Nobody wants to admit their ignorance about something, or to admit that they are wrong, so some people would rather detach than debate. Let’s accept that, in some ways, we are more “ignorant” than ever; after all, new facts are being discovered every day, and old assumptions are under attack. We need to see this as a challenge to continuously inform our minds and form our consciences, gearing them for continuity amid change.
The Center for Humane Technology, which seeks to rein in the dangers of artificial intelligence, quotes E.O. Wilson as saying: “The real problem of humanity is the following—We have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”
- Society has helped to cause the growth of ignorance. Many students receive a shallow education that neither supplies a context to enable understanding nor stimulates a desire to renew our meaning, vision, and hope. Teachers give cursory treatment to history, civics, reasoning, debate, and the most important questions students naturally wonder about. We all should see ourselves as educators, constantly encouraging others to learn in ways combining perspective and purpose.
“There are three basic questions in life: Why am I alive? Does my life matter? What is my purpose?” – Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, posted at his website.
- Everything is information. The above definitions of the term do not guarantee it will all be true or valuable. Today, the abundant supply chain of brain-inputs is like the dangerous growth of the nation’s money supply. It makes us prematurely dismiss many bits and bytes as worthless, as mere playthings or actual nuisances. We drain away knowledge by applying filters like confirmation bias and partisan orthodoxies. With curiosity, awareness of the panoply of knowledge resources, and the Holy Spirit’s help, we can establish trusting relationships with sources of data that will contradict our comfort zones but help to avoid an “unexamined life.”
A quote from the Wisdom 2.0 initiative, in which contributors seek to improve and update humanity’s wisdom: “We’re all running malware.”
- In this age of “information inflation,” the currency of our conversations–the “pennies” of our thoughts—may seem to be shrinking in value. But we need to respect our open economy of wisdom, welcoming diverse inputs. This entails discerning when to shed a “bad penny,” when to recycle or reform ideas by testing them with reality, and when to assemble our derived insights into goods suited for productive exchange with others. The “gold standard” we can use to seek balance and trust in this economy is Christ—“the way, the truth, and the life”—as the centerpiece of reality.
A Harvard University website cites the World Health Organization’s term, “infodemic,” defined as “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
- Arguments become weaponized, and words appear violent, when people confuse their information with their “identities,” especially labels adopted autonomously. People naturally become infophobic if they fear entering a power struggle where the stakes are abnormally raised by spontaneous, intense emotions. We need more politicians, media figures, public intellectuals, and champions of causes at the local level who will moderate our fears and spotlight possibilities for the future. They must model discussions driven by reason and phronesis—practical wisdom, incrementally gained, serving the common good.
“Wokeness flattens everything,” says news commentator Bari Weiss in an interview on the “Uncommon Knowledge” program. Such thinking prompts us to stay in the lane of our superficialities, a lane assigned by the boxes people check, she warns, so we lose our panoramic creativity.
- Every human inherently seeks not just a fact, but the whole truth. In lieu of a religious viewpoint seeing God as the destination of a loving journey toward total truth, many people take shortcuts to truth, defining it in their own terms and reject alternatives. They especially defy viewpoints based on authoritative ideals—guides which threaten their own authority. But they forget that information is an endless array of building blocks with which they can build masterpieces of wisdom (if they are willing to use the assembly instructions).
A blogger at Psychology Today has spoken of the “psychological state” as a society governed by citizens seen less as rational actors than as emotional beings. He quotes authors who depicted this short-term-thinking citizen not as “homo-economicus,” but as “Homo Simpson.”
(Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs.)