nicholas_humphrey's picture
Emeritus Professor of Psychology, London School of Economics; Visiting Professor of Philosophy, New College of the Humanities; Senior Member, Darwin College, Cambridge; Author, Soul Dust
Fast Knowledge

In 1867, Dostoevsky on a visit to the cathedral in Basel, was transfixed by Holbein's portrait of the dead Christ. According to his wife's diary, he climbed on a chair to look more closely at the painting and remained for a good half hour, taking in every detail. Two years later, in his novel The Idiot, he was able to give an uncannily accurate description of the painting, as if he had photographed it in his mind.

In 2012 of course we would not need to go to such trouble. We could snap the painting on an iphone, and summon it up later on the retinex display. Actually we wouldn't have to visit Basel. We could check it out on "Google images" back home. And while we're at it, we would only have to type in "Dostoevsky + Holbein" to find this anecdote confirmed at a dozen sites.

One-touch knowledge can be an enormous boon. Yet I worry that in raising us all to a plane of unprecedented genius, it is creating a drearily level playing field. When each of us can learn so much, so easily, in the same way as everybody else, we are in danger of becoming mere knowledge tourists, hopping from attraction to attraction at 30,000 feet without respecting the ground that lies between. One-step travel is a boon as well. But when everyone finds themselves going to the same places, when it's the arrival and not the journey that matters, when nothing whatever memorable happens along on the way, I worry that we end up, despite our extraordinary range of experience, with less to say.

In the old days, when, like Dostoevsky, we had to work at it, the learning we accumulated, however eccentrically, was both valued and valenced. The landscape of our knowledge had mountains and valleys, flat sands and gushing geysers. Some parts of this territory we had explored for ourselves, others we were guided to and paid for, others we might have chanced on by luck. But however we came by them, we were proud to know the things we did. They were the presents we brought to the table of intellectual debate. In argument we could reveal them when and if we chose, we could put everything out front, we could pretend ignorance, and play hard to get.

We should worry that this dimension of individual intelligence is disappearing, and with it that flirtatiousness that leads to the marriage of ideas. Soon no one will be more or less knowledgeable than anyone else. But it will be knowledge without shading to it, and, like the universal beauty that comes from cosmetic surgery, it will not turn anyone on.