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IT Savvy, But Stupid

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In the age of information it seems we would be better off with more wisdom and a little less information.

By Edward H. Spence

In an age of information abundance there is a deficit of wisdom.

The age of abundant information is paradoxically marked by a deficit of wisdom. It seems the more information we have the less wise we are in managing and controlling it for our individual and collective well-being.

The problem is that there is too much information and there is not enough time to absorb it, understand its implications and judge the best way to use it for our individual and common good. The glut of information has created gluttony for information, which can lead us to behave not necessarily unethically but unwisely and in some cases downright foolishly.

Examples of unwise and foolish online behaviour abound, such as the Australian triple Olympic gold medallist who lost a lucrative sponsorship with Jaguar as a result of a thoughtless tweet about the South African rugby team; the Canberra Raiders star who was photographed performing an act of simulated bestiality with a dog, which was later published on the internet and forced his resignation; a journalist with The Age who was fired for a series of unsavoury but mostly silly “tweets” about various TV personalities and celebrities; a journalist in Ireland with the County Down Outlook who was sacked after making hate comments on her Facebook page about the young woman Michaela Harte murdered on her honeymoon in Mauritius; and a US journalist who resigned after making insensitive tweets about Lara Logan, the CBS journalist who was sexually assaulted in the recent demonstrations in Egypt. The problem is large and global.

There are many such daily informational acts of unwise indiscretions and self-defeating misconduct that would pass unnoticed if not for the all-seeing-eye of the omnipresent internet.

According to Luciano Floridi, the eminent philosopher of information, the infosphere is now the new biosphere. The digitisation of information has fundamentally changed not only the way we disseminate information but the way we live. According to Floridi, we are becoming informational beings (inforgs) increasingly spending a lot of our lives in the infosphere. But the internet is capricious and unpredictable, and nigh impossible to control.

If we cannot control or manage the flow of digital information on the internet, just as we cannot control the weather, the next best thing is to control our own online informational behaviour, which is within our control. We have to learn how to use and disseminate information wisely in a manner that protects and promotes our individual and collective well-being.

Wisdom that was the core concern of philosophy in ancient Greece, Rome and the East (think Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, Confucius in China and the Budda in India) provides a ready-made model. As a higher type of knowledge, wisdom can provide practical “know-how” for applying information to improve our lives and the lives of others.

It is also a reflective virtue in the form of practical prudence, which can teach us how to create and use information to live good and meaningful lives in the infosphere – lives capable of leading to self-fulfilment and happiness for us and for others.

What wisdom requires is that we learn the husbandry of information. How to reflect upon it, how to understand it, how to control it so it does not control us, how to judge its implications so we can foresee its consequences, and how to use it in ways that enhance our well-being and promote and protect our rights to freedom, privacy and respect.

In the age of information it seems we would be better off with more wisdom and a little less information. Switching our iPad to Plato would make a good start.

Edward H. Spence is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Ethics at Charles Sturt University’s School of Communication and Creative Industries.