Head in the Cloud

I found William Poundstone’s recent book Head in the Cloud – The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google rather a disappointment. I had been hoping for an exposition of the neural benefits of being knowledgeable – but while disowning the view that cognitive development is only about material benefit, this is largely what the book confines itself to.


More interesting – if still flawed – is Poundstone’s use of online polling to conduct fairly large-scale surveys of public knowledge. With a clear eye to the market on both sides of the Atlantic, he meticulously cites examples from both Europe and America and the results, if taken at face value, make depressing reading. If education’s goal is to produce a more informed populace, it seems that so far we have barely made a dent. That said, one might question the informative value of asking people lists of what they do or don’t know, particularly when the examples in the book itself highlights the extent to which such knowledge is culture-dependent.

Poundstone goes on to correlate scores in such tests with ranges of other views and opinions, often in quite specific ways. He suggests that a high level of ignorance of basic factual information often correlates with more extreme views on a range of issues, something that recent events in the U.K. might reinforce. For example, the past week has demonstrated that many hard-Brexiteers have little real understanding of the institutions they purport to advocate, as seen in their reaction to the High Court ruling regarding the sovereignty of Parliament to trigger  Article 50. And a vox pop in Barnsley on Friday’s Radio 4 Today programme revealed that some people think that the U.K. has already left the E.U.

One might counter that the human species has always functioned more on a mixture of ignorance, prejudice and instinct that its more intelligent members might feel comfortable with – but in a time when the consequences of ignorance are so far-reaching, educators perhaps need to face the music here. Even in so-called developed countries, the power of those baser reactions appears closer to the surface than we have liked to pretend, and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that they present a risk to the very foundations of ‘civilised’ societies.

Poundstone’s book fails, however, principally on its inability to consider the more intangible benefits of knowledge – precisely the same failing as many current educational models. A dependence on supposedly-scientific method stymies any attempt to consider such matters: if one’s ‘proof’ is largely found in statistics and correlations, then one needs a quantifiable outcome to measure against. In this sense, it is indeed easiest to look at relatively practical matters such as test scores, and the eventual earning capacities of differing people. In this, Poundstone shows – relatively convincingly within his own confines – that those who know more tend to have more conventionally successful lives. He hints at the cognitive factors that may lie behind this – the Marshmallow Test gets a mention – but he fights shy of the more difficult analysis. Unfortunately, this is precisely the same mistake that many educational models make: they frame their success criteria in material or at least quantifiable terms, simply because the alternatives are too difficult to measure.

But this is one of the oldest flaws in the book: measuring what you can rather than what you need will not necessarily provides the answers you seek. I am not for a moment pretending that I know the way forward on this – but my longstanding motive for being in education is the intangible benefits. I suspect that this really lies in the realm of assembled neural networks –and by definition those are both so complex and so unique as, I suspect, to be beyond useful analysis.

Much of what successful education ‘does’ simply cannot be quantified – it falls within the realm of Wisdom, and the very nature of this makes it unquantifiable. It is also so multi-faceted that it defies the craving of formal education to ‘know’ and claim credit for its input. I would suggest that education itself is only of most effect when, like a good wine, it has had decades of laying-down in which to mature. In other words, its impact is time-dependent in a way that modern institutions and policies prefer to deny. It relies on accumulation of experience and the benefits of hindsight to make much practical sense. One (hopefully) only has to compare the world-view of a recently educated but still immature undergraduate with that of the same person in later life to appreciate this.

I think we are witnessing the consequences of the collective failure to appreciate such matters: on the one hand, people have never had so much access to information (and education) as they have today – and yet it seems not to be making for better-quality discourse or more considered opinion; if anything, the opposite. I suppose one might consider the real issue to be the divide between those who have (effective) access to information and those who do not – but in which case there remain far more of the latter than we care to admit. But in reality, those views do not seem to correlate with education; there are plenty of educated people who hold bigoted views, and I suspect plenty of the less educated who do not.

What seems to be missing is the transformation of knowledge into wisdom. I suspect that this is because it is a process that no teacher can really do for you; I come back to the notion that teachers are merely the planters of seeds. But the decision of formal education to disown Wisdom as its key objective cannot be helping. In his final sentence, Poundstone edges closer to the real issue: Google might tell you the answer, but it cannot tell you what to ask in the first place – and nor can it tell you what to do with that ‘answer’ when you have it. In this, I think a much more satisfactory answer was provided by the late Douglas Adams, through the voice of Deep Thought: a computer might have given you the answer – but it is up to the individual to work out what the question is.

And that’s where there is no substitute for a properly educated mind.


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