Soft Despotism in the Information Age

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
-T. S. Eliot, “The Rock”


A simplistic ethics might suggest that increasing information necessarily enhances the quality of our choices. A good choice is well-informed, and a great choice is truly information-rich. If this were the case, we should be making the best choices in human history, because we live in the so-called information age, in which people anywhere on earth can instantaneously access seemingly unlimited quantities of information. If Aristotle was right when he wrote that all human beings naturally desire to know, then we are surely standing atop the pinnacle of human fulfillment. Yet there is another possibility. What if increasing amounts of information can be likened to greater levels of ambient noise in a room, which only make it more difficult to discern the soft voice of wisdom we really need to hear? 

When Aristotle said that human beings desire to know, he was not referring to the amount of information available to us. He was instead talking about knowing, which is different from merely having access to information or even accessing large amounts of it on a frequent basis. One could, for example, read and even memorize a phone book without necessarily gaining any real knowledge. This reflects the fact that, as Eliot reminds us, there is a difference between information and knowledge, and a further difference between knowledge and wisdom. Information is inert. To know is to have a sense of what information means and how it can be used. To be wise is to know what is most worth knowing and to what purposes it should be put.

Information may be increasing at a fierce rate, but knowledge is not necessarily expanding apace, and wisdom may be getting left in the dust. We can lose wisdom in knowledge, and we can lose knowledge in information. It is possible to amass innumerable widely disparate facts in a short period of time by surfing the net, but there is a big difference between accumulating facts and truly understanding something. The distinction is well illustrated by several neurologic disorders, such as mnemonismthe ability to recall extraordinary amounts of information—and hyperthymesia—a condition in which people recall every day of their lives in exquisite detail. What might at first sound like a blessing turns out in many cases to be a curse, as such individuals often recollect incontinently, with a poor grasp of significance.

When Tocqueville warned democracies against “soft despotism,” he was thinking of a form of government that, instead of tyrannizing people through threats of imprisonment, torture, and execution—hard despotism—would instead gently and gradually mold them into servility. It would do so, he wrote, by becoming “the sole agent and the only arbiter of their happiness, providing for their security, foreseeing and supplying their necessities, facilitating their pleasures, managing their principal concerns, and directing their industry.” By choosing and doing everything, it would render people less and less capable of making decisions and acting on their own. It would be like a parent, except that this paternalism seeks not to prepare people for adulthood but “to keep them in perpetual childhood.”

Tocqueville was describing a totalitarian state, but he could be describing the information age and its essential agent, information technology. There is nothing new about the idea that the digital age presents an unprecedented threat to liberty—comprehensive surveillance of each person’s movements, financial affairs, and daily conversations, are made possible by a global electronic network that would have beggared the imagination of Orwell’s Big Brother. Both the captains of the information industry and their most vocal opponents have been pronouncing the death of privacy for decades now. What is new and radically different, however, is the encroachment of an information tyranny that extends far beyond mere privacy and corrupts our understanding of what it means to know and care for one another.

This new form of soft despotism is as insidious as it is pervasive. When we put a tablet computer into the hands of a small child, purchase pre-teens their first cell phone, or make sure that high-school and college-age offspring have access to the latest digital technology, we become its active though often unwitting accomplices. Supposing that we are merely following in the footsteps of our parents and grandparents, who sought to give their children every educational advantage by purchasing encyclopedias on the installment plan, we are in fact doing something very different—creating an almost irresistible and highly formative connection between some of the crassest and basest forces in our culture and the minds of future generations. We get what we want now, but not necessarily what we need for a lifetime.

As Aristotle noted, we are animated by a deep longing to see and hear, the two principal pathways by which we know. Digital technologies provide images and sounds of nearly unimaginable quality, not only by the fidelity with which they represent real-world scenes but also through their capacity to enhance them. Many find the digitally enhanced realms of computer graphics, video gaming, and online pornography preferable to what the real world has to offer, even beginning to suppose that a computer screen is the real world, or at least that virtual reality is preferable to the one we really inhabit. In other words, the information age has turned out to be an age of seduction, appealing to deep human longings in enhanced ways that many find all but impossible to resist.

We are close to our fellow citizens, but we do not see them; we touch them, but we do not feel them; we exist “only in ourselves and for ourselves alone,” and in so doing, we lose not only our kindred but our country. Civil society cannot thrive when people are isolated.

No one is holding a gun to our heads or threatening us with the loss of our families or our jobs. They are simply appealing to some of our basest instincts—just what are the rich and famous up to this week, how can I get rich and famous myself, what sorts of new breads and circuses are beckoning my purchasing power, and in what new ways can human beings meet, fall in love, and hook up? People have always been fascinated by such matters, and now they are available to anyone, anytime, anywhere, and seemingly for free, or for no more than the price of a digital device, cell phone service, and digital subscription fee. If my reading of Tocqueville is right, however,  we are paying a great price for them, a price the magnitude of which many of us are largely unaware.

This price is, in short, a form of enslavement. It is said that the average person looks at his or her cell phone three hundred times a day. It has become our window on the world, and many of us can hardly pry our eyes away from it. It is by now a tiresome observation, but it is remarkable how often we see people—colleagues, friends, married couples, families—seated around a table not facing one another but gazing at their cell phones. Each of us, as Tocqueville writes, “lives apart, a stranger to the fall of all the rest.”  We are close to our fellow citizens, but we do not see them; we touch them, but we do not feel them; we exist “only in ourselves and for ourselves alone,” and in so doing, we lose not only our kindred but our country. Civil society cannot thrive when people are isolated.

To be sure, we are free in a sense, perhaps freer than any people in history. We can surf to whatever URL we want, fortified by our purchasing power and guaranteed by the First Amendment, or so we think, unfettered access to any content we might wish to grant access to our minds, hearts, and souls. Yet again, as Aristotle reminds us, we are the kinds of creatures who, over time, come increasingly to resemble the things we long for, spend time with, and devote our attention to. We are, in a profound sense, constantly remaking ourselves by what we choose to attend to. And if most of us choose badly, preferring the things that render us shallower, vainer, and more corrupted and corrupting, then we will have done a profound disservice not only to ourselves but those who depend on us to choose well.

There was no gun to our head. We chose freely. But we did not choose well, and our families, communities, and humanity are the poorer for it. To avoid such a fate, we need to rethink what our lives might be for. If it is nothing more than passing the time and self-amusement, then no course correction is necessary. But if it is to lead good lives, to enrich the lives of others, to build relationships and communities in which human beings bring out the best in one another, and to leave our world a bit better than we found it, then radical change is called for. We must cast off the irons of the softest of despotisms, the most insidious of tyrannies, and redirect our sustained attention to the things most worthy of attending to—a turn from information to knowledge, and from knowledge to wisdom.