If there’s one thing that liberals and conservatives can agree on it is this: that an informed citizenry is both necessary and beneficial to the growth and flourishing of a democratic nation.
This week’s Lunch with TED features David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party in the United Kingdom and also likely the next Prime Minister. Cameron believes, I think rightly, that the modern world is entering into a new age – the “Information Age.” As with onset of the Industrial Age from whence we are coming, this new Information Age will bring about radical changes in the way we live our lives and self-govern as individuals and as societies.
As a conservative, Cameron believes at least two things to be true: First, that people, when given choice and power, will create for themselves the strongest and best societies. Second, that governments should operate “with the grain of human nature,” that is to say that they should treat people as they are versus using government power to make them as you think they should be. The Information Age, with its ability to quickly and easily connect people to one another and the information necessary to make informed decisions, is bringing about a renaissance in government where those who adhere to the aforementioned truths will be empowered to do the most good.
We are moving from a age of centralized bureaucracy to one where “genuine people power is possible,” Cameron contends. Here in the United States, Cameron’s theory finds substantial support in President Obama’s use of the internet to raise money and disseminate information during his campaign. Then candidate Obama was able to mobilize thousands of supporters and raise hundreds of millions of dollars in no small part due to his use of web technology to connect people to important information about him, his policy stances, and means by which people could quickly and easily contribute to his campaign. Where pre-internet campaigns were fueled by centralized special interest groups donating big money and big manpower, campaigns in the Information Age will be fueled by millions of small time contributions of manpower and money coordinated by an information infrastructure more powerful than any in human history.
With the opportunities born of the internet and the rise of the Information Age, Cameron hopes to direct our attention to the question of how we can make the world a better place without spending more money. This is an admirable and worthy problem to solve and you should watch Cameron’s talk to hear some of his great ideas about strategies for solving that problem. However, I fear that Cameron might have missed an even bigger problem because he’s made a big assumption.
Cameron’s big assumption, and the assumption of many in the new media, is that information, or data, equals knowledge. To memorize facts is to be educated and to be able to recall facts from across educational disciplines, from science to literature, is to be “well-rounded.” If that is true, then “organizing the world’s data” and making it readily accessible and transparent to all will make widespread education on any topic possible; all people need to do is access the data and they will be educated to make informed decisions. However, having the facts and knowing what to do with them are entirely different things.
If “people power” is to truly be the source and means of self-government for societies of tomorrow, then the people need more than just the facts, they need the capacity of discernment so that they might see the facts and know what is good, noble, and just. Education, then, in this Information Age, must be about more than just “the facts;” teachers must do more than teach “strategies” for memorizing, or worse, searching for data. If we are to educate people for self-government, then in addition to making information readily available, we must also emphasize the acquisition of those things that cannot be measured in data points such as wisdom, charity, grace, truth, and goodness.