A COUPLE OF YEARS ago, during an interview with CNBC, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya was asked about constraints on projects to improve social outcomes. Implicit in the question was an accusatory snark by the television anchor, who probably is rich but not quite in the same league as the billionaire, that sought to suggest, ‘Why don’t you spend more money?’ To which Palihapitiya answered that the real constraint was not capital allocation but human resource and technical knowhow. How does an engineer solve problems of transmission loss or battery storage? Can we find better ways to deduce protein-folding structures rather than rely on hacking our way using brute force trial-and-error algorithms? There may indeed be answers to these problems but to find them, one needs time and individuals to spend their lives looking for it. The problem of improving social welfare, Palihapitiya suggests, is also intimately tied to the problem of form—how to incentivise technically skilled people to keep an eye on the search for solutions.
Last month, the New York Times carried a story about a German programmer who had unwittingly stored the private keys of his 7,002 Bitcoin holdings (approximately worth $300 million) inside a hard drive whose password he could no longer remember. In an effort to pry open the ‘IronKey’ storage device, which allows a user to try 10 passwords before it freezes and permanently encrypts the contents, he had tried eight passwords and failed. Like some Hollywood thriller from the early 2000s (‘Ocean’s Bitcoin’?), there were two trials left before which that fortune would permanently become inaccessible. The programmer, now resigned to his fate, we are told, has decided to wait for a distant future ‘in case cryptographers come up with new ways of cracking complex passwords’. He was betting on radical breakthroughs in the future.
These two examples highlighting the problem of discovering solutions are variations on the same theme: the opacity of knowledge. Like ships afloat on the high seas of information and ignorance, the solutions to these problems resemble a proverbial lighthouse that demarcates the shores. While in some cases we can see faint outlines of the light’s aureole amid the fog, in other cases we may very well have drifted so far out that we now rely on wrong maps in the wrong seas to find the right answers. These examples speak to the boundary conditions about what can be known, albeit slowly and what may be entirely unknowable in the future. These limitations are often framed as a consequence of technical knowhow and complexities of systems where causes and effects are far too nebulous and intricate to summarise. Computer scientists rely on demarcations like ‘P and NP-hard’ to classify problems based on time required to solve. Implicit in all of these is the idea that knowledge is, at least, theoretically possible. If only we knew how to transcend boundaries of time, human resources and analytical methods.
While many growth evangelists have repeatedly told us that new knowledge will help us break away from habits like environment destruction and other seemingly inimical cycles, Václav Smil warns warily that, ‘Knowledge is not always the cure.’ He argues that we simply don’t know well enough how complex feedback loops work in interlinked systems like our environment and climate
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Historically, however, the most familiar boundary was in the form of ‘forbidden knowledge’. This barrier typically took two forms: restrictions derived from context and based on content. We see the former, most provocatively, in the killing of Shambuka in the Ramayana who ostensibly transgressed caste rules that dictated access to the Vedas. In his case, and in that society, it wasn’t knowledge itself that was deemed dangerous but rather who could access it. As societies introspect and access rules are revised, such prohibitions often seem archaic and a cruel waste. The other form of forbidden knowledge traditionally was dependent on the content itself. We see this in the mythologies where Greek gods denied humanity access to fire till Prometheus tricked Zeus and stole it. The consequence for Prometheus, much like Shambuka, was painful death. In both cases, knowledge was deemed as the key to maintaining forms of hierarchy.
There is a third kind of ‘forbidden knowledge’—one that is more intuitively familiar to us. This refers to our arriving at questions the answers to which are unknowable and efforts to speak further press us against a kind of metaphysical wall of inarticulateness, a form of death of cognition itself. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a series of debates between Yajnavalkya and many others (Ashvala; Aartabhaga; Chakrayana; Kaushitakeya; the female scholar Gargi; and, most interestingly, a man called Sakalya) under the auspices of King Janaka’s court sets up nicely the idea of limits of knowledge. Only here, the outer boundary of the answer is often a form of cul-de-sac. To Gargi, Yajnavalkya famously says, ‘You are asking too many questions about a deity whom one should not ask too many questions,’ and then—whether it was said as a matter of fact or with a vehement sneer, we cannot tell—he famously adds: ‘Or your head will shatter apart!’ She, then, falls silent. In the debate with Sakalya, Yajnavalkya poses a question which the former is unable to answer and ‘his head did, indeed, shatter apart’. And in case that wasn’t enough, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us—somewhat mystifyingly—that ‘robbers moreover, stole his bones, mistaking them for something else’. This metaphor of ‘head splitting’ is not an Upanishadic innovation or evidence of Yajnavalkya’s boorishness; rather, even the Buddha reminds a young man called Ambattha, who wasn’t answering his question that his ‘head will burst into seven pieces at once’. It was a form of expressing the consequences of trying to resolve seemingly irresolvable problems.
These ideas of forbidden knowledge appear anathema to our modern way of thinking about society and progress. In fact, by most reckonings, no form of knowledge is today forbidden. We may be disallowed to write or print various things in accordance with our laws, but knowledge or expression of the same or exploration of its contents are not outside the remit of a particularly brave or foolhardy individual. As societies, we may have restricted-use technologies and export control lists for certain products, but these decisions to deny access often have much to do with realpolitik and other secular concerns rather than some intrinsic taboo contained in that knowledge. American literary scholar Roger Shattuck observed that while ‘we have laws and customs to limit behavior’, we no longer have cultural or personal sense of restrictions that apply to ‘symbolic products of mind—words, images, movies, recordings, television shows’. We live in an age when anybody can read or write pretty much anything (as long as they are willing to bear the consequences in the form of legal penalties or jail or, on other occasions, violence). Cultural conservatives in the West have abandoned their old war cry—‘Is nothing sacred?’—and, in turn, have themselves gone to opportunistically rely on medical breakthroughs that come from knowledge gained from the very practices they previously decried, such as stemcell research. Any restriction, if imposed at all, acquires a form of juridical or security concern and political need rather than of a sense of sustained engagement on the question of what kind of knowledge imperils us. The result is an ideology that valorises knowledge acquisition of all kinds.
In his book Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, Czech-Canadian scientist Václav Smil surveys the history of the concept of growth—from simple improvements in transport in the Persian Empire to metastasising cancerous cells—only to highlight towards the end of the magnificent volume that modern civilisation continues to rely on a linear relationship between inputs and outputs when it comes to extracting and deploying energy sources. While many growth evangelists have repeatedly told us that new knowledge will help us break away from habits like environment destruction and other seemingly inimical cycles, Smil warns warily that, ‘Knowledge is not always the cure.’ Like many since American novelist Wendell Berry in the 1960s, he argues that we simply don’t know well enough how complex feedback loops work in interlinked systems like our environment and climate. But our near messianic faith in technical knowledge as panacea, rather than one among many means to flourish in this world, has led us to cultivate an attitude that awaits a radical breakthrough in the future to save us even as the present pushes us into greater despair. We have forgotten that real knowledge lies in learning to recognise the constraints we live under, critical thought involves asking why a specific constraint has survived, and wisdom lies in working to remove constraints as long as new ones aren’t imposed.