If Knowledge Is Power, Why Do We Feel Powerless In The Age Of Information?
In 1817, Thomas Jefferson, the American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, philosopher – not to mention the third President of the United States – used the phrase ‘knowledge is power’ in a letter to his friend, the academic George Ticknor.
In his correspondence, Jefferson stated that an increased level of knowledge for any individual would naturally lead to greater power, safety, happiness and prosperity. But over 200 years after he scribed these words, is Jefferson still correct? In 2020, does more knowledge really give us more power over our lives?
After all, humanity has changed a lot in the past couple of centuries. Increased knowledge of gravity and aerodynamics allowed us to take to the skies. Gains in medicine and neuroscience have helped us to fight disease (at least, until Coronavirus came along). Advances in nuclear physics allowed us to split the atom, enabling us to create nuclear power – and the threat of nuclear destruction.
The expansion of our knowledge in mathematics and computing led to ‘Moores Law’, where the processing power of computers doubled every two years.
Knowledge gave us power that Thomas Jefferson could not even have imagined. But is it now making us powerless?
We have reached a point where we face an imbalance: where knowledge is leaving us feeling more insecure about our lives, our minds and our wellbeing than ever before. Is it any wonder we doubt ourselves, questioning our minds and our own abilities to live a meaningful life when we inhabit a world so out of sync?
Why out of sync? Well, when we look at our position at this point in human civilisation, things aren’t quite as knowledgeable and powerful as they seem. We beat ourselves up for trying and failing to conquer our minds and find our position in the world, but we don’t realise we are struggling to find balance within an existence consisting of:
Stone Age emotions. Medieval Institutions….and Godlike technology.
By examining these in turn, perhaps we can increase our own knowledge of the situation we find ourselves in, and stop giving ourselves such a hard time the next time we feel quite so powerless.
Stone Age Emotions
Like it or not, we still have the base emotions and behaviours of our ancestors from the Stone Age, which began approximately 2.6 million years ago and lasted until around 3,000 BC.
These most primal traits existed when we began our evolutionary journey from Australopithecines (human-like apes), to Homo Erectus (no laughing at the back) to Neanderthals and eventually to modern man(and woman)kind. And they still control our lives today.
Fear, Anger, Hunger, Surprise, Disgust. No matter how high we build our skyscrapers, how far we travel to the stars, how many channels we add to our televisions, how many megabytes of speed we add to our broadband internet, nothing will change the fact that our basic emotions will forever be the same.
In fact, every single emotion we feel can be channeled back to four primal emotions, according to research by the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology.
So we have emotions that are still linked to the dawn of human history. We are still ultimately controlled by fear, disgust and anger. But then we take this primal creature and force it to live in structured, controlled institutions.
Why medieval institutions? The Magna Carta Libertatum (Medieval Latin for ‘Great Charter of Freedoms’) was created in 1215 by King John of England to make peace with a rebel group of barons. It promised the protection of the church, the implementation of a justice system, formed the foundation of the parliament of England as well as being referenced in the United States Constitution. This medieval document was once described as:
The greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.
Medieval times in the Western world was a period of significant political, legal and institutional evolution at a point when civilisation needed a helping hand to instil structure, law and order. Without wishing to get into any type of modern political debate, evidence can be seen in social uprisings such as the US civil rights movements of the 1960s, the UK riots of 2011 or the modern-day protests for civil freedoms in the US, UK and Hong Kong: primitive human behaviours of fear and disgust do not always appreciate being controlled by institutions that were established 1,000 years earlier.
But there is one more ingredient to add to this cocktail.
In the last 70 years we have expanded our technological advances at an ever-increasing rate: In 1956 the IBM 350 disk file was the size of a refrigerator and had a storage space of 5MB – this is equivalent to five photos that you take on your phone; Today, a micro SD card the size of your fingernail can store can store over 120,000 photos; In 1903, the Wright brothers flew 0.28km, in 2006 the longest non-stop flight record was set at 41,500km.
Today we live through our smartphones, can listen on a whim to any song ever composed, stream any movie, order any product we could ever desire online and have it delivered to our door and talk face-to-face with someone on the other side of the world. Just 20 years ago, we were returning videos to Blockbuster, creating mixtapes, finding spare change for the payphone and almost breaking our necks as we rushed downstairs because we didn’t want to miss the start of our favourite television programme.
And the more we advance on the technology front, we speed of change quickens. Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil states:
Technology goes beyond mere tool making; it is a process of creating ever more powerful technology using the tools from the previous round of innovation.
If even our great-great grandparents – let alone our ancestors from the Stone Age, or the Medieval rulers which designed the institutions which still control our lives today – witnessed us sitting in our homes with this technology in the power of our hands, they would believe they were surely in the kingdom of the gods.
Mo’ Knowledge, Mo’ Problems
With this unbalanced melting-pot of behaviours confined by institutions and controlled by technology, is it any wonder that we modern humans feel out of control sometimes?
This brings us back to the original question of knowledge. We have more knowledge than we could ever imagine, we literally have access to almost all the knowledge ever created by the human race in the palm of our hand. But does it empower us, or does it make us more confused?
Instead of being empowered, we suffer anxiety from too much choice (the cognitive process of ‘choice overload’ was first coined by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, Future Shock). Rather than knowledge giving us clarity, we suffer from ‘analysis paralysis’, and increased economic purchasing power leads us not to greater freedom but endless buyers remorse.
In today’s modern world, can we really say knowledge is power when the World Health Organisation states that over 450 million people are suffering from mental health issues?
And it seems that despite Google presenting us with 940 million solutions to the question ‘how do I improve my mental health’, the problem is getting worse, not better.
Step Away From The Knowledge
More knowledge about life, the universe and everything does not give us more power. Not on it’s own, at least.
It is more knowledge about ourselves – our thoughts, decisions, emotions, why we do that thing we always do – that empowers us.
Perhaps more knowledge about other people gives us power over them. But we will save the pitfalls of focusing too much upon the lives of others for another time. We, however, often feel powerless because knowledge has given us an abundance of options, opinions, insights and comparisons. It is often knowing too much that causes us the dilemmas, not too little.
One only has to look at the lives of children – the uncomplicated joy they get from the simplest of tasks, a life unburdened from the worries of the world, an existence that automatically lives purely in the moment without the need to download a mindfulness app – to understand that knowledge does not set us free.
So next time you feel burdened by the world, on the next occasion you feel the weight of information upon you, or whenever you feel like life is just becoming a little bit overloaded, just remember:
Knowledge on its own is just information.
Like our Stone Age ancestors, if we don’t like the look of something we can choose to walk away from it. Knowledge can also be a trick. It might not be all it’s made up to be. Maybe it’s just something you already know, wrapped up to look like something different.
Because Thomas Jefferson did say “knowledge is power” in 1817.
So did Thomas Hobbs in 1658, in his book Elements of philosophy the first section
So did Sir Francis Bacon in 1517, in his book Meditationes Sacrae.
And so did Imam Ali in c.650 AD in his writings, Nahj Al-Balagha (The Way of Eloquence)
So the next time you feel powerless, just remember that you are not alone, and that so many others before you have struggled with the same dilemmas, the same issues, the same fight and the same struggles, and they came out the other side.
And so can you.
This article was originally published in the July edition of CONQR. To get insight like this delivered to your door in a hand-signed, wax-sealed letter every month, find out more here