If knowledge could solve our problems Wikipedia would have saved the world

Increasingly, in politics and in business, leaders are talking about a VUCA world. That is an acronym standing for volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous.

It was originally developed as a concept in the military but I think most of us would recognise these factors in our world today.  While change might be, in some ways, no greater in scale than other times in human history, the pace of change is dramatically faster. As with most things, in response to this we have followed our habitual reaction and sought to gather knowledge to arm ourselves to face this difficult time, but knowledge just isn’t doing the job. 

If knowledge could solve the world’s problems, then a combination of the internet, Google, and big data would be in the process of fixing everything: The fact is knowledge is not enough. We have to take that knowledge, we have to take all the data and process it, filter it, make sense of it, and more than anything else make meaning out of it.

In many ways we are well equipped to do this: humans after all are meaning making machines. We are constantly bombarded with huge quantities of information through our senses and unconsciously filter this according to our beliefs, values, feelings, and previous experience. The problem with this is that if at some point we have done some less constructive meaning making, interpreting the data in ways which limit our possibilities, then that pattern of meaning making can become habitual every time we experience similar circumstances.

We have tried to counteract this potential for unconscious bias in our judgement by having more knowledge, more data, to balance the picture.  However, even if we can access the right kind of information in the moment we need it, the speed of change in the modern world means that as fast as we can generate new knowledge, that knowledge is made irrelevant.  This is why I believe that we need to cultivate our capacity to process the knowledge and information that we have in order to make better judgements. Wisdom is what enables us to make the judgement calls, to synthesise knowledge and wield it creatively in such a way that the world makes more sense after we have applied our wisdom.

This is how we come to label someone as ‘Wise’: they offer a perspective or make a judgement, under difficult circumstances and often with limited data. They don’t rely on having exhaustive knowledge of the situation.  Based on the weight and gravity of their past experience they make a judgement call, and it seems to be a good one. This is not a diatribe against knowledge, let me be clear, we need all the knowledge we can get as well. The problem I’m trying to highlight is that we have developed such a strong societal bias towards knowledge generation, rationality, and the tangible that we are neglecting the cultivation of wisdom, creativity, and our intangible faculties. We need to bring balance to our development or we may rationalise ourselves out of existence.

As William Bruce Cameron wrote:

“… not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”[1]


[1] Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking by William Bruce Cameron