Power Without Wisdom

I am going to go out on a limb right now and say that the biggest risk to life as we know it is not terrorism, it is not global warming, and it is not destruction of the environment from pollution or genetically modified organisms.  The biggest risk to life as we know it is much broader than that, and is not talked about much of anywhere that I know of.

The biggest risk to the planet relates more to how we think and operate, and to a commodity that seems to be in very short supply.  This commodity is wisdom.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s define wisdom as “information, gained through experience, about what works and what doesn’t work in life.”  Consider, for a moment, bits of wisdom we are all aware of:  “Honesty is the best policy.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  “A penny saved is a penny earned.”  These bits of wisdom are as applicable today as they were hundreds of years ago.  And that, as it turns out, is the key.

The process of Wisdom is very different from the process of Science.  Science involves gaining information very accurately, through a highly disciplined process, about very specific, narrow questions.  The process of wisdom, on the other hand, is organic – the fruit of many “trial and error” experiments, over long periods of time.  “A penny saved is a penny earned.”  Useful.  How did we end up with that?  Not through the scientific method, but rather, through generations of observing who was doing better in their lives and who wasn’t.  At some point, someone observed that people who were frugal were generally doing better in their lives than people who squandered their money.  At some point, someone articulate this wise observation in a concise way that others repeated.  “A penny saved is a penny earned.”  It became a part of the culture of its time, and has lasted into our time.

In our Western culture, science is considered by many to be the ultimate source of Truth.  It is hard to argue with successes like this smartphone I am using to write this essay on.  Science is brilliant at providing us with such marvels, yet it is severely lacking on providing us with certain other types of necessary information.  We have all seen families sitting around a table at a restaurant, not connecting with one another, everyone staring at their phones.  Seems like something is going on here that is unwise.

To be fair, science can be a part of developing wisdom.  For example, science can do studies and answer narrow questions such as whether there is a link between heavy smartphone use in a family and certain emotional disorders, about 20 years from now… and assuming that they can find families that did NOT have heavy smartphone use to use as a control group… and assuming that some organization with deep pockets is around to fund such a study.  But the bottom line is that many of us (myself included) are participating in the “smartphone experiment,” with little or no concrete information about possible negative unintended consequences.

Let’s shift gears for a moment and consider the process of wisdom.  Once again, our working definition of wisdom is: “information, gained through experience, about what works and what doesn’t work in life.” The process of wisdom is ancient.  Up until the development of the scientific method, about 300 years ago, the process of wisdom was the only way we learned anything at all.

In the absence of the scientific method, technology advanced more slowly. Major advances took hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years. The world a child grew up in was pretty similar to the world their parents and grandparents grew up in. So the wisdom passed down from one generation to the next had a pretty good chance of actually being useful to each successive generation.  There were no unanswered questions such as, “what happens to the kids when the parents have their heads in their phones all the time?”

The reality is that the speed at which we are changing the world through the advancement of new technologies has created a crisis of wisdom. We eagerly jump on the bandwagon with each new technology that comes along, without a lot of consideration of possible negative unintended consequences.

We are close now, to an understanding of what I consider to be the greatest threat to life on Earth as we know it.  Through our technology, we have given ourselves unprecedented ability to change the Earth.  And we are doing so at breakneck speed. The primary motivation for doing so is short-term profitability, which is a completely different motivation than anything even remotely related to wisdom.  A succinct way to sum this up is that our power has increased, while our wisdom has decreased.  Power without wisdom.  That is, in very broad, general terms, the mechanism that presents the biggest risk to life as we know it today.  Henry Ford did not set out to eradicate the polar bears. There will be crises we cannot possibly foresee, that are the direct result of unintended consequences of new technologies we are developing today.  What will be the next “global warming?”  Will terrorists find a way to weaponize genetically modified organisms, and what will be the consequences? Will we raise a whole generation of kids who are damaged in some way by the substitution of smartphones and video games for the caring attention of their parents?

So, if power without wisdom is such a dangerous force, what can we do to get more wisdom, and what can we do to make sure we use the wisdom we acquire?  These questions will be the subject of many posts on this blog. To whet your appetite, topics will include “isomorphic wisdom,” which relates to using wisdom gained in one discipline in another,  how the motivations of business can get in the way, how we, as consumers can “vote with our dollars” and force business to behave more wisely, how complexity can hide unwise practices (think 2008 foreclosure crisis), and many more.

So, I strongly encourage you to subscribe to this blog.  More great information is yet to come!

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