Duped by the information age: why you really do have to know stuff.

We’ve been duped by the information age. Duped, fooled, mislead, taken-in. We live in a world where we have almost-instant access to vast databases of information. We live in a world where we can contact peers and thousands of strangers at the click of a button. We live in a world where we can get access to almost anything that anyone has ever said or written.

And we have all, simultaneously, learned exactly the wrong lesson from it.

What is the lesson that we have learned?

“I don’t need to know exactly when the Civil War happened… I can look it up any time I want to.”

“I don’t need to remember the equation for momentum, I can pull that up on my phone.”

“I don’t need to know how to spell words correctly… my iPad will correct my spelling for me.”

You hear the argument all of the time: nobody actually needs to know anything any more (supposedly), because all of our data can be stored on hard drives and retrieved through various devices that we are increasingly never without.

This is the argument that students use every day in classrooms. Moreover, there are plenty of adults who have started thinking this way, as well. For a while, I even caught myself believing the same thing. What is the point of storing raw data (equations, historical facts, and so on) inside our heads when it can all be stored on hard drives and in the cloud?  Why can’t we free up our brains for more original things, like creative thoughts or new syntheses and solutions to problems?

Brain Storage.When the computer can act as “storage” for facts, and we always have access to computers, do we really need to use our brains to store facts?

Here is the problem: you can’t be creative, or come up with new ideas or solutions to problems, without knowing facts. The whole idea of isolated “pure creativity” that happens in the absence of knowledge of the world is a canard. It never happens.  It cannot happen. And the fewer real facts about the world that we hold in our brains, the less our brains have to work with when trying to come up with something creative and new.

Every year a thousand undergraduates re-invent the thoughts of Aristotle. This a great achievement, and they should be proud. But they also need to read Aristotle, and the thousands of years of writing since then, so that they can move beyond it and get an even deeper understanding.

Every semester a thousand computer science students come up with their own creative “work-around” to solve a problem that they wouldn’t have had in the first place if they understood the fundamentals of how a compiler worked.  Or of how a database actually stored data. Or of how a network actually relayed information from a server to your computer.

Every day a teenager becomes politically aware and says, “It’s amazing how screwed up the system is these days.”  If only he’d read a few more books, he’d know that there’s nothing different about “these days” than last year, last decade, or last century: politics has always been screwed up. The only difference now is that he has become aware of it.

Everything about your world view, everything about the way that you solve problems and answer questions, is drawn from the knowledge that you have immediately accessible inside your head. The more you have in there, the more understanding of the world you will be using when you come up everything from your solutions to problems to your theories of life. I would even go to far as to say that your “big picture” thoughts–your theories about the meaning of life, what is morally right, and how you should treat other people–are affected by the knowledge of facts that you have available to you in your mind. They are affected by what you know about the world: it’s history, it’s different cultures, it’s different theories.

Do you need to know the year the Civil War started? Probably not.  But if you know how long ago it began, and how long ago it ended, then you are more likely to have a clear understanding of how much our social fabric and culture has changed in that amount of time. And if you know that, then you are more likely to have a real sense of what aspects of our culture are more dynamic, and what aspects are more static.  You will have a more clear idea of the time-frame and pace at which technology advances.  And as you fill in the gaps, and you learn the facts about what our country was like in the 1880’s, the 1900’s, the 1920′ and so on, you will be able to understand today’s culture much more effectively.  You will get a clearer idea of where certain traditions came from, of why we as a country do certain things the way that we do.

So knowing facts matters. Could you look it up, any time you wanted to? Of course.  But that “potential” knowledge can’t affect the way you view the world on a day-to-day basis.  It can’t be part of your ongoing process of creativity, problem-solving, and understanding why things are the way that they are.

So stop emptying your head.  The internet is a great repository of knowledge, but it isn’t a reason for you to feel like you can “know less.”  That will just make you less effective as a human being. That’s the wrong lesson to learn.

You should be filling your head, instead. Fill it with all of those “useless” facts about history, about science, about the world. Fill your head with “useless” facts about how basic equations were derived, about the way that electrons flow in a computer, about who signed the Declaration of Independence first and why. It is only by having the sum total of those facts in your head that you will be able to make the most of your creative mind, and gain real insightful understanding of how things work in the world.

Your mind is a fantastic creative engine, but without facts inside it, it is an engine without gasoline.