Who are the wise?

The Thinker — About UofL
The Thinker, University of Louisville

Where do we turn for wisdom in contemporary culture? Eclipsed by science, religion no longer wields the authority it once did. Our captains of industry and elected officials offer nothing in the way of wisdom, as their station in life is not relatable to most people due to their unfathomable wealth, their celebrity status as former reality TV stars, or both. Companies offer no wisdom, only pandering and half-baked apologies for their involvement in various scandals. Celebrities are no more wise than us since they have been exposed, thanks to Instagram and the like, as just as boring and sad as we are. Who holds wisdom today?

There is something: the wisdom of the crowd. In many ways, crowd wisdom has come to fill the void previously occupied by the authorial wisdom of political leaders and philosophers. In 2020, the “wisdom of the crowd” means the internet. And it’s true: the internet is full of wisdom. However methodologically flawed polling can be, I ultimately find the internet’s ability to aggregate public opinion on a topic and quantify it along a consensus scale a useful (and beautifully modern) kind of wisdom.

It’s important to distinguish wisdom from knowledge. Take user review metrics. Metrics like a movie’s Rotten Tomato score or a restaurant’s average Yelp! star count offer us data of a certain variety. We can’t say these metrics constitute knowledge, however. If the new Batman movie has a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, do we know it is good? In most contexts, knowledge requires firsthand experience or observation. But if I scour dozens of product reviews on Amazon before I purchase a new keyboard, I am equipped with some kind of information about the product I didn’t have before. This information isn’t “knowledge,” but rather wisdom, or judgment, about how to navigate a world oversaturated with too many movies and restaurants and gizmos and gadgets, and the internet does it well.

Yet, this is practical wisdom. The practical wisdom offered by the internet is all good for the low-stakes struggles of discovering new movies and locating hole in the wall restaurants, but what about questions of greater significance? Where, today, might we turn for wisdom about deeper human quandaries? What about existential wisdom? Who has advice on how to live authentically during a once-in-a-century pandemic? How do we derive meaning from life when the entire US west coast is on fire? How should we live in a country whose democratic institutions are crumbling? All the gods are dead, after all, and our president is Donald Trump. Authorities have been demoted. No one is steering the ship.

To be sure, the wisdom of the crowd (read: the internet) has proven capable of addressing some of our anxieties, and could potentially solve future problems. Wikipedia, a testament to the power of collective action and an example dispositive of the omnipotence of the profit motive, functions as a kind of existential pain balm in its radical democratization of knowledge. But the Wikipedia model seems to me the exception and not the rule of the internet. In most other online ventures, the way that crowd wisdom is aggregated and repackaged in order to sell stuff or attract clicks deserves scrutiny.

The practical wisdom of the crowd is also by its nature anonymous, and therefore limited in its ability to address questions of existential significance. The existential wisdom I and I’m sure many others crave right now requires a personal, if individual, character. Crowd wisdom, on the other hand, is depersonalized, extracted by averaging together the opinions of many, meaning that its very process minimizes the impact of individual outlier data points; crowd wisdom is a resistant statistic.

That’s all good, and perhaps even preferential, for yielding an average movie score, but diluting existential wisdom by averaging it neutralizes one person’s wisdom with another’s thoughtlessness. And the challenges facing America today are anything but average; America is quite literally an outlier statistic in many of the most important metrics: gun deaths, covid-19 cases, per-capita health insurance spending, etc. It seems to me that a country determined to persist as an outlier may require outlier wisdom as a counterbalance. At any rate, sound judgment, prudence, and virtue—the ingredients of wisdom—are not traits easily expressed in aggregate.

A lot of things feel like they’re nearing their end these days: the US west coast, in-person education, democracy, the American dream. We know this. But knowledge simply won’t suffice, and neither will aggregate and practical crowd wisdom. Existential wisdom is what we need in such times. We already know how bad things are; the question is what will we do about them?