Why I Know Nothing

16 Apr , 2013  

Why I Know Nothing

Lately, I’ve been thinking a fair amount about Socrates. Admittedly, I have not thoroughly studied the philosophy of Socrates.

Admittedly, I know nothing.

The last sentence is the one thing I believe I actually know. I also realize that is inherently contradictory. Socrates thought a lot about nothingness, and he asked a lot of pesky questions, making him a renowned, infamous gadfly. Hell, you probably know this—he’s not exactly an obscure name.  Yet, I’ve been wondering, if Socrates lived today would he be roaming around the virtual agora, technologically heckling people over a keyboard with no more than a tough question or honest inquiry? Would he have a Twitter or a Facebook or an Instagram or everything in between? Would Socrates poke around on a tablet with the deft hand motions of a harp virtuoso? Would we find him asking grouchy Internet curmudgeons about their negative reviews on microwaves and food processors?

I’ve been curious about Socrates, mainly because since graduating with an English degree I have had a simple, uniform conversation with a number of people that goes as follows:

Acquaintance: “Have you read ________?”

Me: “No, but I’ve heard good things. I’ll try and put them on my reading list.”

Acquaintance: “No way! C’mon, I thought you were an English major. How could you have never read that? I can’t believe…”

Me: “You’re right. I know nothing.”

A similar banal chat I’ve experienced frequently goes thusly:

Acquaintance: “Did you hear about ______?”

Me: “No, when’d it happen?”

Acquaintance: “It’s all over the news! It happened half an hour ago. C’mon.”

Me: “…”


I’m sure these snippets occur often somewhere in the daily interactions of most people. I promise, I don’t think I’m special here. In fact, I believe that in today’s egocentric, technologically social culture, these exchanges are probably omnipresent. For a while, I tried to ignore these hackneyed conversations, but after much thinking, I started imagining Socrates, and I began associating these conversations with the ways in which culture is evolving. Lately, I’ve been trying to embrace the patience of Socrates more than ever. When my ignorance is revealed, I’d rather ask for more information than feign understanding, and I’d rather learn through human interaction than a quick glance at Wikipedia. Moreover, these interactions got me pondering what it means to have a positive relationship with language in today’s technological blitzkrieg.

Books, of course, became the primary medium in regards to my contemplation. I am not particularly well read, and despite going to college specifically to increase my literary knowledge, I consider there to be significant gaps in my personal library. The Google Books Project (Aka Google Books) has estimated there are around 130 million books in the world[1], a number that by the time you read this will be inaccurate, because books are incessantly being written and published, especially considering the olio of self-publishing options available online. (Sorry if this observation seems tacit) Google has at least one and a half million of these books online in full, free to all users, and they are increasing that number daily. Since graduating, I’ve been talking with many of my English degree comrades, many who have been attempting to read a book per week, and one or two ambitious friends I’ve spoken to are trying to read one hundred books a year. These goals are admirable, and I think a bit beyond the norm. Yet, this means even an ambitious reader only finishes perhaps a thousand books in a decade, and the average leisure reader probably even less. At the rate I read, I’ll be lucky to finish five hundred books in this period of time. The point is, this number barely makes a dent in the world of free, available literature, and becomes infinitesimal in the world of language as a whole.

Now if we consider today’s mirth of magazines, quarterlies, newspapers, newsletters, blogs, and other online literature, remaining up to date seems nearly impossible. Keeping tabs on social media, online news, satirical critiques, hip art reviews, and cultural hubs essentially becomes a full time job. Then if you include regularly printed material it becomes infeasible, both due to finances and a lack of time.

For example, about once a month I frequent a local University of Washington staple called Bulldog News and buy some magazines. This news goliath and coffeehouse has been around for about thirty years, and carries about three thousand titles, having approximately a thousand available at any given time. On my trip this month, I bought a copy of Playboy, Rolling Stone, and The Atlantic. Purchasing these three magazines cost me about twenty dollars. If I include a fraction of the other printed material: The New Yorker, GQ, Harpers, the plethora of expensive literary journals, the local weekly Seattle freebies such as The Stranger, and the gallimaufry of other magazines I’d like to purchase, I could potentially spend an entire month reading, and spend a month’s pay to achieve that goal, only to perpetually repeat the process.

This problem is only exacerbated by the increase of online media struggling to separate fact from fiction. While major media distributors strive to maintain their integrity with critical fact checking, the vast majority of Internet sources are unaccountable for any type of libel. While rapid access to this endless information is both remarkable and portentously valuable, it also allows misinformation to reach the mainstream. Although, on a philosophical level we can open up a the big question, “Well how do we know what is definitively true” and delve into an unsolvable query on senses and science and so forth, the main question (at least in my mind) is “Does it become a momentary, situational truth?” Wikipedia has been a major focus in this ongoing inquiry of fact versus fiction. After all, if we believe something is true, in some odd way, does it not at least become true within our individual perspective?

Unfortunately, intellectual braggadocio has become a prominent component of the self-proclaimed, cultural hipster movement. Intrinsically, this movement in fashion and pop culture does not only focus on irony and self-expression, but also seems to cling to empyrean, omniscient sense of erudite awareness. While this hipster platitude has been wrung dry by an incessant focus on what defines independent art, the construct of colloquial artisan awareness, and the ability to inundate those uninitiated with an arsenal of seemingly off-the-cuff pop culture factoids, a generation is left with a masochistic lemming’s sense of having the same taste, influences, and cultural references while simultaneously believing that it was an individual, esoteric choice. Thereby, it is not surprising when discussing literature that many members of the so-called hipster generation seem both surprised, repulsed, and relieved when they find that you’ve also read the books they thought were a personal testament to their “in-ness”. If in this article I make references to Wyndham Lewis or Wyndham Earl, Jean Rhys or Jean Grae, it instantly isolates readers for only a moment, until they switch tabs and research said reference, and if that search provides insufficient explanation, then that can only mean the reference was either inherently uncool or lacking value, or, oppositely—and dangerously—too cool to be found.

Expanding this sense of cultural entitlement from books to the world of music, television, and film is even more challenging, because these media are stored so easily on cell phones, MP3 players, tablets, computers, and all other heterogeneous storage devices. (Yes, I am aware books can be stored on these devices too, but I like to dream that a significant portion of people still only read books in print, and not just to be ironic or hip or out of some Bradburyian sense of terror) Music libraries have replaced the bulky, gargantuan record collections of the past (for most people anyway) and allow immediate access to websites that allow users to remain continuously up to date on new artists, albums, and songs. My personal music library contains over twenty thousand tracks, however, I doubt I could tell you the names of half the artists, album titles, or song titles if you played them for me. This is not to say having access to such a vast reservoir of media is not valuable, but instead an acknowledgement that the sheer overwhelming amount of information can leave one (ironically) uninformed. The personal relationship perceived with purchasing a record or movie dissipates because there is no physical evidence of the transaction and lost into some meta-cloud of memory that can be accessed upon request. Candidly, the presence of knowledge has fully evolved and been minimalized on a physical level. This does not suggest libraries will disappear, or that there aren’t still warehouses full of texts, but that it may no longer take up an entire wall or room of our homes and apartments.

Lastly, as the population grows, and the amount of artists, writers, interactive users, and opining critics exponentially expand the Internet with a force comparable to the Big Bang, it becomes (and has been for some time) impossible to be ubiquitously relevant. The main flaw that seems to draw many digital immigrants[2] to condemn technological achievement as an educational risk is that many of us on the senior edge of being digital natives are so focused on attempting to be socially aware that we never allow ourselves to genuinely absorb information on a specific subject matter. (Flagrant generalized speculation) Also, as news is instantaneously available, remaining tuned in requires meticulous, consistent, unending attention to the flooding stream of facts, thoughts, events, opinions, and ululations.

Although, the younger generation of digital natives are remarkably adept at continually interacting with screen technology and the increasing pace of social media, it is impossible to fully decide if this constant link is correlated to any type of portentous, societal attention deficit. The most common fear by naysayers seems to be a worry that knowledge has somehow become fleeting, as if Ipads are going to turn children into an army of inebriated sots asking the same question repeatedly. In my own experiences I have found this concern somewhat substantiated insofar as I tend to retain information for years about books and magazines I have read, while I tend to forget the online foofaraw I partake in almost immediately. That, however, is an individual biased belief, and one that hardly legitimizes any type of theory on social trends. It is more so a personal preference than proof of an axiomatic truth.

Therefore, I have decided it is inane for me to believe I know anything. Recently, a respected friend of mine asked me if I ever look at language and find it odd. Does the physical construction of words appear bizarre? I told him I couldn’t agree more. As I type out these words on the page they appear both comical and imperfect, wanting figures that provide temporary illumination, but in the end they convey only fragments of my thoughts, the main one of which is a non-thought. That non-thought is simple and prosaic, one likely older than Socrates, one that has haunted greater minds than mine, a thought timeless and unanswerable, and that thought is strictly that one can know nothing. If you have taken the time to read this in its entirety, I encourage you to immediately erase it from your mind, delete it from your mental hard drive, wash it away from the convolutions of your brain, rinse it out of your memory; after all, this is coming from a man that doesn’t know a thing.



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