3 Slow Knowledge

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There is no hurry, there is no hurry whatever.

—Erwin Chargaff

It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

—Lewis Carroll

Between 1978 and 1984 the Asian Development Bank spent $24 million

to improve agriculture on the island of Bali. The target for improvement

was an ancient agricultural system organized around 173

village cooperatives linked by a network of temples operated by “water

priests” working in service to the water goddess, Dewi Danu, a diety

seldom included in the heavenly pantheon of development economists.

Not surprisingly, the new plan called for large capital investment

to build dams and canals and to purchase pesticides and fertilizers. The

plan also included efforts to make idle resources, both the Balinese and

their land, productive year-round. Old practices of fallowing were

ended, along with community celebrations and rituals. The results

were remarkable but inconvenient: yields declined, pests proliferated,

and the ancient village society began to unravel. On later examination

(Lansing 1991), it turns out that the priests’ role in the religion of

Agama Tirtha was that of ecological master planners, whose task it was

to keep a finely tuned system operating productively.Western development

experts dismantled a system that had worked well for more

than a millennium and replaced it with something that did not work at

all. The priests have reportedly resumed control.

The story is a parable for much of the history of the twentieth

century, in which increasingly homogenized knowledge is acquired

and used more rapidly and on a larger scale than ever before and

often with disastrous and unforeseeable consequences. The twentieth

century is the age of fast knowledge driven by rapid technological

change and the rise of the global economy. This has undermined

communities, cultures, and religions that once slowed the rate of

change and filtered appropriate knowledge from the cacophony of

new information.

The culture of fast knowledge rests on these assumptions:

• Only that which can be measured is true knowledge

• The more knowledge we have, the better

• Knowledge that lends itself to use is superior to that which

is merely contemplative

• The scale of effects of applied knowledge is unimportant

• There are no significant distinctions between information

and knowledge

• Wisdom is an undefinable, hence unimportant, category.

• There are no limits to our ability to assimilate growing

mountains of information, and none to our ability to separate

essential knowledge from that which is trivial or even

dangerous

• We will be able to retrieve the right bit of knowledge at

the right time and fit it into its proper social, ecological,

ethical, and economic context

• We will not forget old knowledge, but if we do, the new

will be better than the old

• Whatever mistakes and blunders occur along the way can

be rectified by yet more knowledge

• The level of human ingenuity will remain high

• The acquisition of knowledge carries with it no obligation

to see that it is responsibly used

• The generation of knowledge can be separated from its application

• All knowledge is general in nature, not specific to or limited

by particular places, times, and circumstances.

Fast knowledge is now widely believed to represent the essence

of human progress. Although many admit the problems caused by the

accumulation of knowledge, most believe that we have little choice

but to keep on. After all, it’s just human nature to be inquisitive.

Moreover, research on new weapons and new corporate products is

justified on the grounds that if we don’t do it, someone else will and

so we must. And increasingly, fast knowledge is justified on purportedly

humanitarian grounds that we must hurry the pace of research

to meet the needs of a growing population.

Fast knowledge has a lot going for it. Because it is effective and

powerful, it is reshaping education, communities, cultures, lifestyles,

transportation, economies, weapons development, and politics. For

those at the top of the information society it is also exhilarating,

perhaps intoxicating, and, for the few at the very top, it is highly

profitable.

The increasing velocity of knowledge is widely accepted as sure

evidence of human mastery and progress. But many, if not most, of

the ecological, economic, social, and psychological ailments that beset

contemporary society can be attributed directly or indirectly to

knowledge acquired and applied before we had time to think it

through carefully.We rushed into the fossil fuel age only to discover

problems of acid precipitation and climate change.We rushed to develop

nuclear energy without the faintest idea of what to do with the

radioactive wastes. Nuclear weapons were created before we had

time to ponder their full implications. Knowledge of how to kill more

efficiently is rushed from research to application without much question

about its effects on the perceptions and behavior of others, on

our own behavior, or about better and cheaper ways to achieve real

security. Chlorinated fluorocarbons, along with a host of carcinogenic,

mutagenic, and hormone-disrupting chemicals, too, are products of

fast knowledge. High-input, energy-intensive agriculture is also a

S L O W K N O W L E D G E 37

product of knowledge applied before much consideration was given

to its full ecological and social costs. Economic growth, in large measure,

is driven by fast knowledge, with results everywhere evident in

environmental problems, social disintegration, unnecessary costs, and

injustice.

Fast knowledge undermines long-term sustainability for two fundamental

reasons. First, for all of the hype about the information age

and the speed at which humans are purported to learn, the facts say

that our collective learning rate is about what it has always been: rather

slow. A half-century after their deaths, for example, we have scarcely

begun to fathom the full meaning of Gandhi’s ideas about nonviolence

or that of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic.” Nearly a century and a

half after The Origin of Species, we are still struggling to comprehend

the full implications of evolution. And several millennia after Moses,

Jesus, and Buddha, we are about as spiritually inept as ever. The problem

is that the rate at which we collectively learn and assimilate new

ideas has little to do with the speed of our communications technology

or with the volume of information available to us, but it has

everything to do with human limitations and those of our social, economic,

and political institutions. Indeed, the slowness of our learning—

or at least of our willingness to change—may itself be an evolved

adaptation; short circuiting this limitation reduces our fitness.

Even if humans were able to learn more rapidly, the application

of fast knowledge generates complicated problems much faster than

we can identify and respond to them. We simply cannot foresee all

the ways complex natural systems will react to human-initiated

changes, at their present scale, scope, and velocity. The organization of

knowledge by a minute division of labor further limits our capacity to

comprehend whole-system effects, especially when the creation of

fast knowledge in one area creates problems elsewhere at a later time.

Consequently, we are playing catch up, but falling farther and farther

behind. Finally, for reasons once described by Thomas Kuhn (1962),

fast knowledge creates power structures that hold at bay alternative

paradigms and worldviews that might slow the speed of change to

manageable rates. The result is that the system of fast knowledge creates

social traps in which the benefits occur in the near term while the

costs are deferred to others at a later time.

The fact is that the only knowledge we’ve ever been able to

count on for consistently good effect over the long run is knowledge

that has been acquired slowly through cultural maturation. Slow

knowledge is knowledge shaped and calibrated to fit a particular ecological

and cultural context. It does not imply lethargy, but rather

thoroughness and patience. The aim of slow knowledge is resilience,

harmony, and the preservation of patterns that connect. Evolution is

the archetypal example of slow knowledge. Except for rare episodes

of punctuated equilibrium, evolution seems to work by the slow

trial-and-error testing of small changes. Nature seldom, if ever, bets

it all on a single throw of the dice. Similarly, every human culture that

has artfully adapted itself to the challenges and opportunities of

a particular landscape has done so by the patient and painstaking

accumulation of knowledge over many generations; an age-long effort

to fit close and ever closer into a particular place. Unlike fast

knowledge generated in universities, think-tanks, and corporations,

slow knowledge occurs incrementally through the process of community

learning motivated more by affection than by idle curiosity,

greed, or ambition. The worldview inherent in slow knowledge rests

on these beliefs:

• Wisdom, not cleverness, is the proper aim of all true learning

• The velocity of knowledge can be inversely related to the

acquisition of wisdom

• The careless application of knowledge can destroy the

conditions that permit knowledge of any kind to flourish

(a nuclear war, for example, made possible by the study

of physics, would be detrimental to the further study of

physics)

• What ails us has less to do with the lack of knowledge but

with too much irrelevant knowledge and the difficulty of

assimilation, retrieval, and application as well as the lack of

compassion and good judgment

• The rising volume of knowledge cannot compensate for a

rising volume of errors caused by malfeasance and stupidity

generated in large part by inappropriate knowledge

• The good character of knowledge creators is not irrelevant

to the truth they intend to advance and its wider effects

• Human ignorance is not an entirely solvable problem; it is,

rather, an inescapable part of the human condition.

S L O W K N O W L E D G E 39

The differences between fast knowledge and slow knowledge

could not be more striking. Fast knowledge is focused on solving problems,

usually by one technological fix or another; slow knowledge has

to do with avoiding problems in the first place. Fast knowledge deals

with discrete problems, whereas slow knowledge deals with context,

patterns, and connections. Fast knowledge arises from hierarchy and

competition; slow knowledge is freely shared within a community.

Fast knowledge is about know-how; slow knowledge about is about

know-how and know-why. Fast knowledge is about competitive edges

and individual and organizational profit; slow knowledge is about

community prosperity. Fast knowledge is mostly linear; slow knowledge

is complex and ecological. Fast knowledge is characterized by

power and instability; slow knowledge is known by its elegance, complexity,

and resilience. Fast knowledge is often regarded as private

property; slow knowledge is owned by no one. In the culture of fast

knowledge, man is the measure of all things. Slow knowledge, in

contrast, occurs as a co-evolutionary process among humans, other

species, and a shared habitat. Fast knowledge is often abstract and theoretical,

engaging only a portion of the mind. Slow knowledge, in contrast,

engages all of the senses and the full range of our mental powers.

Fast knowledge is always new; slow knowledge often is very old. The

besetting sin inherent in fast knowledge is hubris, the belief in human

omnipotence now evident on a global scale. The sin of slow knowledge

can be parochialism and resistance to needed change.

Are there occasions when we need fast knowledge? Yes, but with

the caveat that a significant percentage of the problems we now attempt

to solve quickly through complex and increasingly expensive

means have their origins in the prior applications of fast knowledge.

Solutions to such problems often resemble a kind of Rube Goldberg

contraption that produces complicated, expensive, and often temporary

cures for otherwise unnecessary problems. The point, as every accountant

knows, is that there is a difference between gross and net.

And after all of the costs of fast knowledge are subtracted, the net

gains in many fields have been considerably less than we have been

led to believe.

What can be done? Until the sources of power that fuel fast

knowledge run dry, perhaps nothing. Then again, maybe we are not

quite so powerless as that. The problem is clear: we need no more fast

knowledge cut off from its ecological and social context, which is ig-

norant knowledge. In principle, the solution is equally clear: we need

to discover and sometimes rediscover the knowledge of things such as

how the earth works, how to build sustainable and sustaining communities

that fit their regions, how to raise and educate children to be

decent people, and how to provision ourselves justly and within ecological

limits. We need to remember all of those things necessary to

re-member a world fractured by competition, fear, greed, and shortsightedness.

If there is no quick cure, neither are we without the

wherewithal to create a better balance between the real needs of society

and the pace and kind of knowledge generated. For colleges and

universities, in particular, I propose the following steps aimed to improve

the quality of knowledge by slowing its acquisition to a more

manageable rate.

First, scholars ought to be encouraged to include practitioners

and those affected in setting priorities and standards for the acquisition

of knowledge. Professionalized knowledge is increasingly isolated

from the needs of real people and, to that extent, dangerous to our

larger prospects. It makes no sense to rail about participation in the

political and social affairs of the community and nation while allowing

the purveyors of fast knowledge to determine the actual conditions

in which we live without so much as a whimper. Knowledge has

social, economic, political, and ecological consequences as surely as

any act of Congress, and we ought to demand representation in the

setting of research agendas for the same reason that we demand it in

matters of taxation. Inclusiveness would slow research to more manageable

rates while improving its quality. There are good examples of

participatory research involving practitioners in agriculture (Hassanein

1999), forestry (Banuri and Marglin 1993), land use (Appalachian

Land Ownership Task Force 1983), and urban policy.

There should be many more.

Second, faculty ought to be encouraged in every way possible to

take the time necessary to broaden their research and scholarship

to include its ecological, ethical, and social context. They ought to be

encouraged to rediscover old and true knowledge and to respect prior

wisdom. And colleges and universities could do much more to encourage

and reward efforts by their faculty to teach well and to apply

existing knowledge to solve real problems in their communities.

Third, colleges and universities ought to foster a genuine and ongoing

debate about the velocity of knowledge and its effects on our

S L O W K N O W L E D G E 41

larger prospects. We bought in to the ideology that faster is better

without taking the time to think it through. Increasingly, we communicate

by electronic mail and the Internet. As a consequence, I believe

that one can detect a decline in the salience of our communication

and perhaps in its civility as well in direct proportion to its velocity

and volume. It is certainly possible to detect a growing frustration

among faculty with the time it takes to separate chaff from the grain

in the rising deluge of e-mail, regular mail, memos, administrative

pronouncements, and directives.

Conclusion

Fast knowledge has played havoc in the world because Homo sapiens

is just not smart enough to manage everything that it is possible for

the human mind to discover and create. In Wendell Berry’s words,

there is a kind of idiocy inherent in the belief “that we can first set

demons at large, and then, somehow, become smart enough to control

them” (1983, 65). Slow knowledge really isn’t slow at all. It is knowledge

acquired and applied as rapidly as humans can comprehend it

and put it to consistently good use. Given the complexity of the

world and the depth of our human frailties, this takes time and it always

will. Mere information can be transmitted and used quickly, but

new knowledge is something else. Often it requires rearranging

worldviews and paradigms, which we can only do slowly. Instead of

increasing the speed of our chatter, we need to learn to listen more attentively.

Instead of increasing the volume of our communication, we

ought to improve its content. Instead of communicating more extensively,

we should converse more intensively with our neighbors without

the help of any technology whatsoever.“There is no hurry, there is

no hurry whatever.”