38 – #MASTERY

Pity poor David Cecil, totally unprepared.

The unemployed truck driver, with nothing to fill his days, decided on a course of self-improvement. Clear on what interested him, he sought out others who shared his interests, connecting with them, then listened to everything they could teach him. Completely engaged, he spent up to twenty hours a day online, reading and researching and engaging those ahead of his own understanding, learning everything they offered up. An excellent student, Cecil soon felt qualified enough to apply his autodidactic efforts. That’s when the trouble began.

If Cecil had studied ‘bathtub biology’, learning how to catalyze the Polymerase Chain Reaction in order to do DNA amplification, he might have bred himself a superbug, a strain of E. coli capable of giving the whole planet a fatal tummy ache. If he’d briefed himself on nuclear engineering, he might have constructed a homemade particle accelerator, bombarded atoms, and perhaps created a contamination threat affecting his entire neighborhood. Instead, Cecil studied computer security, coming into an understanding of the techniques used to protect and secure networks, then used these skills to break into, subvert, and control the systems for a small Internet Service Provider.

It all ended badly: the ISP quickly detected his intrusion – Cecil didn’t know enough about how to cover his tracks – then shunted him off to systems designed as ‘honeypots’, which look inviting and potentially powerful, but which simply trap the attacker in a sticky dead end. After compiling a sufficiently large body of evidence, the police broke down Cecil’s door one morning, arresting him and impounding all of his computers. The neighbors seemed surprised; an unemployed truck driver with no particularly remarkable talents suddenly become an ‘evil’ hacker? It strained credulity.

Welcome to the age of connected intelligence.

Now that everything known is shared broadly and freely, now that everyone who cares about any given body of knowledge maintains a constant relation to it and to everyone else who cares about that knowledge, the entire world is composed of a continuously multiplying set of knowledge amplifiers. Any of us can place ourselves within one – or fall in, almost accidentally – simply by engaging. By being present, connecting and sharing, we shed our ignorance and quickly acquire a degree of mastery. We can know nothing and crash headlong into one of these knowledge amplifiers, emerging on the other side changed and potent.

Knowledge does not confer wisdom. That is a slower process. Cecil learned everything about how to penetrate and invade computer systems, but he never realized that to possess the capability is far more valuable than actually putting it to use. A well-qualified expert in computer security will earn two or three times as much as a truck driver, and can always find gainful employment. Drunk with power, blind to reason or even common sense, Cecil, guns blazing, charged into a buzzsaw.

This sort of behavior will become increasingly common, as we see individuals with hypertrophied knowledge reach out with their extended capabilities, grasping at things which they do not yet wholly understand. The step function between ignorance and arrogance has become so clearly resolved, communities are growing into an understanding of how those newly engorged with knowledge become a danger to themselves and others. Some communities may isolate these individuals behind a ‘blast shield’ of plausible deniability, others will seek to engage and bring these fledglings into wisdom. Neither approach will be wholly successful.

Imagine the secrets of the atomic bomb had been revealed not at Los Alamos, but within a kindergarten classroom, filled with the high and mostly thoughtless emotions of children still far from their full cognitive capability, and lacking any capacity to restrain themselves. ‘Knowing is doing, and doing, knowing.’ An uncontrollable chain reaction, created in a momentary fit of pique, vaporizes everything. The child has learned how to build the bomb, but has not learned they must never drop it.

Human knowledge in the era of hyperconnectivity has achieved ubiquitous dissemination, and as a consequence all human knowledge will be reframed around consequence. It is not that you can know something; with few exceptions that will be nothing remarkable. The entrapment of information no longer carries within it the seeds of power; rather, the application of information becomes the new wellspring of puissance. We can all know the same things – nothing any longer prevents this – but our application of this knowledge will be guided by wisdom. We can seek to self-aggrandize and destroy, or we can support and strengthen. The choice is always there for everyone, though not everyone will be able to see it.

In the next billion seconds, ignorance, presently viewed as a character flaw, a state of complete lacking, will be seen as something easy to ameliorate, more like a bruise that needs bandaging than a permanent and disfiguring scar. We will acquire (and perhaps neglect and forget) whole bodies of knowledge, transforming our understanding daily, as we become more expert at learning from those who know, and build tools more perfectly suited to the ways we want to learn from them.

Once again, this is no utopia, but actually a world more fraught with human dangers than any we have ever known. If the boy next door can brew up a superflu because he didn’t get a date to the senior prom, we will need to be more sensitive to both the moods and the capabilities of others, or confront pervasive, sudden annihilation.

Communities of knowledge must derive from within themselves the essentials of self-regulation that prevent these sorts of disasters. We are playing with matches while doused in petrol, and need to recognize this. Good fire control policies will prevent needless tragedies, lives ruined (like David Cecil’s) or even lost, merely because our knowing outstripped our sense of what is right. This is the new ignorance, the penumbra of wisdom. It is not that we do not know, it is that we do not know what to do with our knowing.