The information age is truly upon us, but as Adam Smith identified, the existence of this insurmountable quantity of information is not without its downsides, argues Jack Tagholm-Child.

Ubiquitous Knowledge

For the first time in human history man has at his finger-tips access to much of the knowledge and information accumulated since humans first populated the earth 200,000 years ago. All we require is an internet connection, which throughout the developed world is almost as ubiquitous as running water, electricity or gas.

At the time of writing the estimate for the number of individuals with access to the internet was just under four billion. This accounts for roughly half the world's population. It is a number that continues to grow exponentially. Given a number of large scale projects underway by some of the giants in the tech world, which are focussed on completing the finalising global internet connectivity, it seems plausible almost every man, woman or child on earth will have access to the internet in the next decade.

Anyone with a smartphone can access the best ruminations from the greatest thinkers in man's history. From Aristotle to Einstein our knowledge and understanding has never been greater. We are without doubt living in our civilisation information age.

Unfortunately, this abundance of information is not without its downsides. It's increasingly populated by superfluous knowledge from the latest chatter about the Kardashians to Twitter debate surrounding the size of Donald Trump's hand size.

The Problem  

"The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life" 

The quote, found with just a quick Google search, is from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. He is expressing his concern about the effects division of labour might have on the population at large. He worried prolonged activity in one or two extremely repetitive and monotonous tasks would have deleterious effects on the mind.

It seems he may have been right. It might be possible that capitalism may have produced some of the most effective means of distributing information ever devised, whilst at the same time producing a population with a lesser and lesser ability to distinguish good knowledge from bad.

And therein lies the problem. Most of all knowledge – or perhaps better described as information, as knowledge implies a certain obtained enlightenment and wisdom – is fatuous, often in the extreme.

Access to information and the resulting ability to self-educate is of course a good thing, but how does one know which knowledge to consume? Indeed, how does one teach that?

It was assumed by many that giving people access to knowledge and information would result in more enlightened individuals, as the self-evident nature of nourishing and useful knowledge is enough to guide people towards it. This doesn't appear to have materialised.

The Tyranny of Transparency

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Where have all the good politicians gone? This is a question which has resurfaced with regularity in my recent political conversations. Indeed, there does certainly appear to be a dearth of high caliber politicians on either side of the political spectrum at this current moment, and it also seems to have been steadily getting worse for years.

I would make the case that this is correlated with the ever growing presence of useless information, in particular on social media and before that 24 hour news and so on. The modern obsession with a constant minute by minute updating of events – regardless of whether those updates are of any value whatsoever.

The problem with constant news is that there isn't enough news to go around. Cue faux outrage.

The lack of enough real news to fill the airwaves, combined with the certain lack of ability to discern valuable information from the not so valuable, and the fact that absolutely everything now is recorded somewhere, is a perfect storm.

A perfect storm to cause any person of any real merit not to put themselves through the rigmarole of public life. The potential upside versus the potential downside does not pass even the most basic cost benefit analysis. Go into finance.

You can find countless examples these days of individuals in the political sphere, but also in many other fields, forced out of jobs, because of some supposedly controversial remark or action.

Sarah Champion having to resign as Labour's Shadow Equalities Minister is a good case in point. Her writing of an article – attempting to broach what is undoubtedly a sensitive issue, but one which emphatically needs to be addressed – should never have resulted in her having to resign.

And then we have most recently the Westminster sex scandal, where what should have been an investigation and revealing of some truly troublesome wrongdoings by a minority of MPs, became a general witch-hunt for anyone who had performed any level of misdemeanour.

The Internet and other technological advances have allowed unprecedented access to information and given individuals the ability to vastly enlighten themselves.

But, it has also given the world the ability to see just how human everyone really is, allowing every perceived mistake or wrongdoing to be recorded and subsequently amplified.

At the same time society as a whole hasn't adjusted to this new level of transparency. We hold those in public life – especially those in Parliament to incredibly high standards. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – they should be held to high standards. However, there needs to be a level of proportionality applied.

Truly intelligent people, the kind you would want patrolling the corridors of power, will often be eccentric. They may well have said a few funny things in the past. They will likely have little interest in spin and PR. These shouldn't be disadvantages, these things tell you little, if not nothing, about how a person will perform in office.

If one wants serious politicians, one needs a serious public. A public who insist on the idea of a perfect wholesome politician will inevitably get Blair, Cameroon and May types. A lot a resounding rhetoric and next to no action.

To get a political class of the gravitas and capability required to effectively run the UK through Brexit and beyond, the public must lessen their demand for spin politicians. Which is inadvertently being created by a public with impossibly high standards, only allowing those who are masters of creating superficial facades to succeed in politics. It was Joseph De Maistre who said: "In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve."

We have a world in which knowledge is king and yet we have some of the least enlightened political frontbenches in decades. I dare say this is isn't a coincidence.

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