Monday, January 9, 2012

The Age of Imagination

This is not only the Age of Information, this is also the Age of Imagination. Information, at any point in time, is bounded, while imagination is always unbounded. We are overwhelmed more by the potential for new ideas than by the admittedly vast existing knowledge. We are drunk with the excitement of the unknown. Drunks are sometimes not a pretty sight; Isaiah (28:8) is very graphic.

It is true that topical specialization occurs, in part, due to what we proudly call the explosion of knowledge. There is so much to know that one must ignore huge tracts of knowledge. But that is only half the story. The other half is that we have begun to discover the unknown, and its lure is irresistible. Like the scientific and global explorers of the early modern period - The Discoverers as Boorstin calls them - we are intoxicated by the potential "out there", beyond the horizon, beyond the known. That intoxication can distort our vision and judgment.

Consider Reuven's comment, from long experience, that "Engineers use formulas and various equations without being aware of the theories behind them." A pithier version was said to me by an acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press: "Engineers don't read books." She should know.

Engineers are imaginative and curious. They are seekers, and they find wonderful things. But they are too engrossed in inventing and building The New, to be much engaged with The Old. "Scholarship", wrote Thorstein Veblen is "an intimate and systematic familiarity with past cultural achievements." Engineers - even research engineers and professors of engineering - spend very little time with past masters. How many computer scientists scour the works of Charles Babbage? How often do thermal engineers study the writings of Lord Kelvin? A distinguished professor of engineering, himself a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, once told me that there is little use for journal articles more than a few years old.

Fragmentation of knowledge results from the endless potential for new knowledge. Seekers - engineers and the scientists of nature, society and humanity - move inexorably apart from one another. But nonetheless it's all connected; consilient. Technology alters how we live. Science alters what we think. How can we keep track of it all? How can we have some at least vague and preliminary sense of where we are heading and whether we value the prospect?

The first prescription is to be aware of the problem, and I greatly fear that many movers and shakers of the modern age are unaware. The second prescription is to identify who should take the lead in nurturing this awareness. That's easy: teachers, scholars, novelists, intellectuals of all sorts.

Isaiah struggled with this long ago. "Priest and prophet erred with liquor, were swallowed by wine."(Isaiah, 28:7) We are drunk with the excitement of the unknown. Who can show the way?

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