Achieving (and living with) Perfect Knowledge
On September 21 I was relaxing in the sun with Tessa and Loïs. I was drinking Tonic water which is flavored with quinine which gives it a distinctively bitter taste. Loïs wanted to taste it and Tessa wondered out loud ‘do you think quinine could be bad for children?’.
I thought “Well, maybe it is. Quinine is a fever-reducing chemical and the first effective treatment for malaria“.
But I didn’t know if it was bad for children so I simply said: ‘Look it up’.
We both own an iPhone so within seconds Tessa could tell me that non-medical Tonic water contains a medically insignificant amount of quinine and was perfectly safe for children. A few minutes later Tessa said “This is probably one of the last hot days before autumn starts”. So I asked her “When does autumn start?”. She simply replied: “Look it up”.
So I did. It started September 22, the next day.
No Excuse for Ignorance
When Loïs was 4 she demanded cookies on a Sunday. I told her we were out of cookies. She told me to make new ones. I told her I didn’t know how. She became irritated and exclaimed “Sure you do, just look it up on The Internet!”.
As technology advances, internet becomes ubiquitous and portable devices like the iPhone are distributed to billions of people, we all get access to more information then ever before.
Sometimes you hear people complain about ‘Information Overload’. They say that there is too much information to handle. What they actually mean is that they have too little time to handle the tasks that get thrown at them in the form of email. There can never be ‘too much’ information.
If you pick up a dictionary you won’t complain that it is too complete will you? Do you think Google indexes too many pages? No, the only thing you might complain about is that you can’t find the information you need. Once you do, there can never be TOO much information to choose from.
Achieving Perfect knowledge
If you look up “Perfect” in a dictionary it will say something like this:
“Lacking nothing essential to the whole; complete of its nature or kind.”
One day, we will have Perfect Knowledge. Although we won’t know everything there is to know, our knowledge of the world will approach a perfect state. It will be ‘lacking nothing essential to the whole’.
Will scientists know everything there is to know? No, certainly not.
Will we know everything about the past up to and beyond the origins of the universe? No, certainly not.
What we will know is everything we could possibly want to know in the course of a lifetime as will be practical for a normal human being. We will be able to answer 99.999% of all questions we can expect to ask ourselves. All we will need is a second or two to formulate the question and look it up. This will present us with new issues to deal with. Right now our lives and societies are focused on the pursuit of knowledge. Our schools, universities and companies all work on finding our more, about more. We want to ‘Know’ it all.
What happens if one day we do? What if technology makes knowledge accessible everywhere for, almost, everyone? What if we reach Knowledge Nirvana? How would we deal with an abundance of knowledge and the responsibility to deal with it.
A girl in a candy store
In an interview a famous candy store owner was asked if he ever had trouble with employees stealing candy. His reply: “We tell our new employees to eat as much candy as they want when they start. They all eat a lot of candy the first day or two and then become so fed up with candy that they never eat, and steal, again.”
Could the same be applied to information and knowledge? If suddenly you would be able to know everything there was to know, would you become bored with the whole thing after a few days? Would you start concentrating on other things than the pursuit of knowledge and just focus on being happy? But happy with what? How does it feel to know everything?
The Horn of Plenty
Of course you can’t contain, freeze or finish knowledge. Information tends to multiply if combined and shared. If I know something and tell you about it I don’t get poorer but we both get richer. I know what I know and I know that you know what I know and I know part of what you know. Information increases in mass as more is gained. Information grows as magically as Van Helmont’s tree:
“A 17th-century scientist by the name of Van Helmont planted a willow sapling in a container that held 200 pounds of soil and, for five years, gave it nothing but water. At the end of that time, the tree was found to weigh 169 pounds, and the soil 199 pounds, 14 ounces—from just two ounces of soil had come 169 pounds of tree.”
Add information to information and you will get more information back than you have put in.
Absolute & Perfect Knowledge and the End of War
Knowing everything includes knowing everyone. Knowing everything and everyone changes your relation to everyone. It is difficult to hurt someone you love and easier to kill someone you don’t know.
People who hate foreigners are often very friendly with their foreign neighbors, or foreign evening shop manager or security guard at their company. They will say “yeah, they ALL have to get the hell out of MY country. Well, except my neighbors because those are really hardworking decent people. The rest, gotta go!”
The truth, of course, is that ALL foreigners are really hardworking decent people once you get to know them. The whole basis of that problem is a lack of knowledge. Nobody would kill anybody if they really know them, and their mothers. Lack of knowledge starts wars and ends marriages: ‘we never really talk anymore’ and ‘my wife doesn’t understand me’.
It seems highly unlikely that Navy Captain William S. Parsons (“Deak”) would have dropped “Little Boy” if he would have known any of the people on the ground and the devastation they were about to cause. In fact, he said “I knew the Japs were in for it, but I felt no particular emotion about it”. You need a large amount of ignorance to kill another person.
Unfortunately there is more media attention for people killing each other over MySpace profiles than there is for the positive effects of everybody being connected to everyone via Social Networks right now. I’m sure that will change as soon as the first bomber returns from its mission because they checked out the Facebook pages of the people in the city they were about to bomb.
Living with Perfect Knowledge
Not long from now you will carry a little machine with you that will be able to answer any question to throw at it. There will be no excuse for ignorance for any and all of us. You will know where you are, what the rules are for the place you are in, what happened there 5 minutes ago to whom and what happened there 5, 50, 500 and 5.000 years ago. Oh, and what the weather will be like tomorrow. You will look at something or someone and instantly be presented with everything ever documented about that thing, event or person.
What if that moment, that little machine, was here tomorrow. Isn’t the iPhone that machine? How does that influence us as human beings?
I think we have an obligation to start thinking about this state of Perfect Knowledge so we will know what to do when we realize that it is here.