Fast and slow knowledge

David W. Orr on Fast and Slow Knowledge

Wanting more knowledge is not considered surfeit, even by those who despise human excesses in this world. David W. Orr., in “The nature of design - Ecology, culture & Human intention” calls us to ponder this subject.

Writing that, “The twentieth century is the age of fast knowledge driven by rapid technological change and the rise of the global economy. This has undermined communities, cultures, and religions that once slowed the rate of change and filtered appropriate knowledge from the cacophony of new information.” He says - The culture of fast knowledge rests on these assumptions:

  • Only that which can be measured is true knowledge
  • The more knowledge we have, the better
  • Knowledge that lends itself to use is superior to that which is merely contemplative
  • The scale of effects of applied knowledge is unimportant
  • There are no significant distinctions between information and knowledge
  • Wisdom is an undefinable, hence unimportant, category
  • There are no limits to our ability to assimilate growing mountains of information, and none to our ability to separate essential knowledge from that which is trivial or even dangerous
  • We will be able to retrieve the right bit of knowledge at the right time and fit it into its proper social, ecological, ethical, and economic context
  • We will not forget old knowledge, but if we do, the new will be better than the old
  • Whatever mistakes and blunders occur along the way can be rectified by yet more knowledge
  • The level of human ingenuity will remain high
  • The acquisition of knowledge carries with it no obligation to see that it is responsibly used
  • The generation of knowledge can be separated from its application
  • All knowledge is general in nature, not specific to or limited by particular places, times, and circumstances.

Observing that “Unlike fast knowledge generated in universities, think-tanks, and corporations, slow knowledge occurs incrementally through the process of community learning motivated more by affection than by idle curiosity, greed, or ambition.” he further states that the worldview inherent in slow knowledge rests on these beliefs:

  • Wisdom, not cleverness, is the proper aim of all true learning
  • The velocity of knowledge can be inversely related to the acquisition of wisdom
  • The careless application of knowledge can destroy the conditions that permit knowledge of any kind to flourish (a nuclear war, for example, made possible by the study of physics, would be detrimental to the further study of physics)
  • What ails us has less to do with the lack of knowledge but with too much irrelevant knowledge and the difficulty of assimilation, retrieval, and application as well as the lack of compassion and good judgment
  • The rising volume of knowledge cannot compensate for a rising volume of errors caused by malfeasance and stupidity generated in large part by inappropriate knowledge
  • The good character of knowledge creators is not irrelevant to the truth they intend to advance and its wider effects
  • Human ignorance is not an entirely solvable problem; it is, rather, an inescapable part of the human condition.