Seeing the Meaning: One Role for ICTs in the Development of Practical Wisdom

AUTHOR
Timothy Walsh

ABSTRACT

Few would deny that the development of modern information and communication technologies has substantially increased the ability of individuals to collect, access, share, store, disseminate, and organize information. At the same time, some argue that this wealth of information is of little real value, having anywhere from no effect to a pernicious effect on our ability to make meaningful choices and construct meaningful lives. A human cannot flourish without a coherent sense of self, but some say that this is exactly what ICTs, at least as they have been developing, tend to undermine.

Shaping one’s life story into a coherent, integrated whole requires a kind of practical wisdom. Drawing on Martha Nussbaum’s insightful interpretation of Aristotelian rationality, I conceive of this kind of practical wisdom as a virtue that applies not only to making discreet choices between various potential actions, but also to shaping the ongoing reinterpretations, assignments of meaning, and visions of one’s future self that mold our evolving characters and self-narratives. Practical wisdom, as understood here, is intimately connected to a type of “seeing” that allows us to grasp the unique qualities of the objects of our perception, some of which may only be visible from our own individual perspectives. Furthermore, the exercise of practical wisdom involves a meaning-based deliberative process that leverages the entirety of one’s self—including both the faculties often considered rational and those often considered emotional or non-rational—to effectively, but not necessarily perfectly, evaluate incommensurable goods. A rigorous defense of this view of rationality and practical wisdom is beyond the scope of this paper. However, given the difficulty encountered by attempts to subsume human judgment under a consistent and complete set of general rules, it seems reasonable to consider alternative conceptions of judgment and rational choice.

Flourishing as a human has always required the exercise of practical wisdom, but it is perhaps true that the pursuit of excellence in practical wisdom is of greater significance today for developing a coherent identity than in the past. It seems that modern life, partially through the influence of ICTs, has eroded the authority of certain traditions and worldviews that could “substitute” for the true exercise of practical wisdom, at least for some.

I intend to argue that the evolution of ICTs, particularly as it is reflected in the growth and development of the Internet, will foster individuals’ capacities for developing and exercising practical wisdom. In particular, the present paper will focus on the positive effects of participation in the evolving culture of the Internet on the acuity of perception that I contend is crucial for exercising practical wisdom. This claim should not be misconstrued as stating that everyone who uses the Internet will undoubtedly excel in practical wisdom. My argument is far more modest: I suggest that the ideas, values, meanings, and purposes that propel the evolution of the Internet and become enshrined in its culture are also conducive to developing the kind of perceptual excellence needed for the exercise of practical wisdom.

The first part of my argument will be a defense of the conceptual claim that the Internet constitutes a new kind of cultural space that affords us additional perspectives on ourselves and on our local or regional cultures. This description is not intended to be a complete or exhaustive claim about the ontology of the Internet; rather, it is an interpretation of one possible “function” of the Internet. The “architecture” of the Internet, built from ideas such as massive parallel processing and free exchange, as well as the evolution of the Internet into an ever more interactive and individual-empowering element of culture, encourages people to freely share what they are passionate about, making it an unmatched and unprecedented space for exploring the unique qualities of these passions. The nature of the Internet not only encourages the expression of various passions, it also tends to prompt users to examine the meaning and value of these pursuits from new angles. For example, the interconnected nature of the Internet combined with its quasi-global scope makes it more likely that people sharing a particular passion will find others who share this same passion, but may come from very different backgrounds. These people might have very different conceptions of the nature of the shared passion, and interaction with such people will almost certainly enrich one’s own perceptions.

The second part of the paper will focus on the increasing use of the Internet for the exchange of narrative content, as evidenced in the proliferation of social networking sites and sites such as Second Life. I do not intend to argue that the content generated by users of these sites is necessarily profound and enriching for outside observers, or even for participants. Rather, my contention is that the active participation in storytelling expected of those who use these sites can compel users to “see” aspects of themselves that they might not have been aware of in the past, sharpening and enriching their self-perceptions.

I will conclude by briefly outlining how these sharpened perceptions might contribute to excellence in practical wisdom, and by suggesting some avenues of research that may lead to a better understanding of the influence of ICTs on the nature and practice of human judgment.

REFERENCES

Nussbaum, M. (1990). Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Postman, N. (1990) Informing Ourselves to Death. Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://www.mat.upm.es/~jcm/postman-informing.html.

Volkman, R. (2005) Dynamic Traditions: Why globalization does not mean homogenization. Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://bibliotecavirtual.clacso.org.ar/ar/libros/raec/ethicomp5/docs/htm_papers/68Volkman,%20Richard.htm.

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