Most of us have heard the old parable of the six blind men and an elephant. To summarize it briefly – Each blind man is asked to feel a different part of the elephant and describe the animal. Of course, each one describes it in a very different manner. The moral of the story being that the perception of a matter is highly subjective and it is imperative to know the entirety of the matter in order to arrive at a reasonably well-formed view, and thereby the “truth” of the matter.
So why do I invoke this parable now?
Recently, I have been surrounded by over 20 college interns (from various cultural/ethnic/economic backgrounds) who are helping out with a major event at our office. With a group of youngsters congregated in a small space, the environment becomes rife with many a colorful conversations. Given the proximity of my office from them, I get to hear every detail of these conversations. They range on all kinds of topics – Russia/Ukraine, Tinder, the missing 8-year-old girl who the city has been frantically searching for, which food trucks are the best, dating woes, hotness of a girl/guy, etc. While I enjoy this free entertainment, the number of times I heard them pass “judgmental” statements has startled me quite a bit. A few examples of these judgmental statements – “The Peruvian brothers truck has the best roast chicken….Yelpers are raving about it”, “Russia wants to bring back USSR”, etc. While these seem harmless, on listening the conversations a little more, these statements were from perceived information, information that they had not actively gathered and deducted but stumbled upon due to the very fact that this information is not only available in “excess” but is available with easy “access”. (The guy who said that Peruvian brothers’ food truck had the best chicken, had not eaten there himself!). When I pointed this out to the group, that they are passing judgments on things without collecting sufficient data (or first hand experiences where possible), I got quizzical looks from most of them. I admit, I must have come off a bit patronizing in my tone and very quickly, I realized that what I was saying was futile.
This subject goes beyond the formation of “snap judgments”. There is a sense of entitlement in a lot of us, of having and standing by an opinion with little to no credible information to back it. In a world where such opinions can instantly be transmitted to thousands, it only adds to the perpetual vicious loop. This may not sound like such a huge issue, but it beckons to look 10 or 20 years from now. I do not have kids of my own, but I look at my friends’ kids who are in the 1-5 year age group and I imagine what their world would be like in such an environment. How will they form opinions? How will they pass judgments? What impact that may have on their lives and the lives of others they have influence on? Its one thing to coexist with a generation which did not have ready access to information and had to cautiously and painstakingly gather it (anyone over the age of 30 may fall in this category – but I have also seen many 30 somethings pass judgments purely on hearsay!) AND an entirely another thing where all of the humanity will be coming from a place where access to information is a mere finger flick (or a voice command) away – a finger flick where the odds of landing the wrong information are exponentially higher as newer information accumulates at an unfathomable rate.
The last decade has seen this massive explosion of “excess” of information and easy “access” to information (or misinformation). The immediate effect of this is that we have to deal with the herculean task of perceiving the facts from this constant unstoppable flood of information (in corporate jargon – drinking from an open fire hydrant). It is all very overwhelming – for every point there is a counterpoint, for every fact there are a million myths. The result is that we give up on sifting through the mountains of data and exasperatingly form a snap judgment, not because we want to, but because it is the easy way out. Very soon, I see this tendency to arrive at a judgment become a habit (if it hasn’t already) for the current and future generations. I don’t know how to say it without sounding preachy, but the fact remains that this habit will create a toxic environment if we don’t exercise caution and educate our children about the merits of a procedural approach of arriving at reasoned opinions on matters – no matter how small or big the matter may be.
The “snap judgment” phenomenon has become so commonplace that you don’t even notice it anymore. And I confess, I have been party to this myself more than I would like to admit. But, I do still have a part of my brain which keeps me in check and allows myself to retract my judgments and not repeat this behavior.
On re-reading what I wrote above, the entire piece sounds pessimistic and preachy, which is hardly my intent or deliberate style. I still have faith in us as a people who have the ability to course correct ourselves. This trend of “snap judgments” may just be a side-effect of the Information Explosion phenomenon. And by saying this I also do not intend to make a villain of the Information Explosion. It is certainly one of the greatest inventions of the last 50 years. However, the rate at which it is evolving is what makes it unpredictable and cautions us that if we don’t orient ourselves and our future generations now, we may not have the luxury of time to course correct.It will be people walking around like computers – all “information” no “knowledge”.
Our educational system, to an extent teaches us the benefits of data gathering, and data analysis prior to arriving at conclusions in the matters of academia. This however, does not translate too often to life situations – where we soak up information from the first convenient chunk of data we can lay our eyes/ears/hands on and just run with whatever suits our thinking.
If I had children of my own, I would narrate the six blind men story over and over to them – and not just for their benefit, but mine too, since it’s so easy to get carried away in the strong currents of the flood of information around me. The merits of the moral of this parable cannot be emphasized enough in these times, times when we have all become “judges” in our own right, times when these next generations will be the change agents, leaders, and policy makers of the world. I would not want me and them to be in a world where there are Six Billion blind men.