The End of Books and Power, for now

Going through old books is a lot like time travel. You end up asking yourself this question, “why the hell did I buy this book?” And you try to reconstruct yourself at the moment buying this book, remembering how you wanted this book over another book, and how you had to prioritise and stay within the budget (which you busted anyway), and then deciding that it was this book. Or how you came across this book purely via serendipity, because it looked great, or it appeared to be what you were looking for subconsciously, and you remember how, in previous occasions, those serendipity purchases were such great choices (no they weren’t). And you buy them. But now many years on, you are looking at them again, their page a bit yellowed (because you were on a tight budget (which you busted), and so you always bought the paperback edition), and how the writing is now hopelessly out of date and irrelevant. The topic is obviously no longer the flavour of the day, and the world moves on to other authors and other topics.

Now I am looking at many titles, bought under a similar set of circumstances, and now with the privilege of hindsight, and beginning to rationalize all those decisions. Not justification, but just rationalizing – making sense, putting order to memories and nostalgia.

Certain things become apparent after some reflection. One of them is that knowledge does not mean power. If that relationship was true, hey, I’ll be quite powerful by now. Just kidding. I now realise that knowledge and learning is just the first step towards some action in the world, which then influences outcomes – the sum of that process being the exercise of power, at least in some quarters. The Baconian dream is just that, and it should fade away.

Knowledge need not be tied to Identity. I am NOT just what I know.  Our lives are obviously more than the sum of the knowledge in books; there’s the rest of our lives too and of greater importance – the relationships that we have.

I remember that one impulse that led to the purchasing of this small library was indeed the Baconian ideal that knowledge could result in power. The naive 18-year-old younger self, would however, have no clue about the process of translating power from knowledge, only knowing accumulation. And so it goes.

This accumulation process then took on a life on its own. Where do I start, how wide should I explore, how deep should I go? An accumulative process has no end. I started with what I ended off with General Paper at junior college. Thomas Friedman’s Lexus and the Olive Tree gave clues about what else to read: Paul Kennedy, Samuel Huntington, Robert Kaplan, and so on. Very quickly, I would learn about the value of the “Further Reading” or the “Bibliography” or the “Notes” section. I also had a strong interest in science – and one of my very early objectives, after reading Gleick’s Genius, was his Feynman Lectures. And on and on and on.

National Service gave me plenty of time, and in 2007, TED was only just getting started. With an iPod Touch, it was possible to download and view ALL 300 TED videos, and that provided more seed crystals for a larger book collection. I remember spending close to all of my allowance on it. After all, what else could I spend on weekends?

In University, the modules and programmes gave further hints about what to buy. I eventually majored in Sociology, and so I eventually got Bourdieu’s Distinction, and other books. I collected the entire works of various authors (and managed to read most of them). This explains the Latours, the Dennetts, the Pinkers, the Wilsons, the Dawkins. It explains why I would get books for particular topics as with Arthur, Waldrop, Strogatz, Duncan, Kauffmann, Barabasi and others for Complexity. The latest collection that I’ve been put together was in Organization, and even then I’ve let things go already.

Why do I want to keep knowing? Why this obsession? I had made Knowledge as part of my identity. And knowing always means knowing more. And more. Sort of like money, except its curiosity – what else is out there, what don’t I know yet, what’s out there for me to discover – but in it’s extreme its manifestation is no gentler – an obsessiveness that tires and eventually exhausts.

One common answer that I’ve often given myself is to: understand the world, find your place in it, and hope to make it better. It’s sounds innocuously reasonable enough. My 18-22-ish old self wouldn’t know any better. Chancing upon the field of complexity was probably both the nadir and the zenith of this dream. It was the zenith because complexity provided a set of logics and concept that could make the chaotic and confusing world yield to the power of science and math; it was also the nadir because of its very nature – probabilistic, catastrophic, hopelessly sensitive to initial conditions.

The period of the books also coincided an interesting time in contemporary history, and gave plenty of space for curiosity and complexity. It was a unipolar moment belonging to the US; the world economy had just come out of a tech bubble, but then technology continued racing on; Facebook and Twitter would come later, and Apple was just getting started with the iPod. And then in the years that followed, the recognition that China and then India perhaps were going to play major roles, especially after the O’Neill BRICS article (and his less famous N-11 sequel). It was a fascinating time to try to understand everything. IPCC appeared, and started pronouncing warnings about anthropogenic climate change, that many years later in 2014, we find now we can only adapt, no longer mitigate as with previous years.

The Baconian dream was supposed to give me power to change the world and its systems directly from the pages of the books, or so I thought, and apparently not so. It was only during and shortly after university that I realised for myself that systems are slow and not prone to drastic changes, that continuity is good and desired, that it takes tremendous energy for people to enact changes in organizations. Organizations – the way people come together for a common purpose – it appeared to be the key I never noticed. After all, don’t we spend our lives in one organization or another? Families, companies, and countries… And change – isn’t that their pupose, to effect something different in the world? Start-ups aim to scale rapidly so they can affect large changes in business and social patterns amenable to their own existence. Countries maintain expensive militaries to defend their own unique existence to be free from the hegemony of others. If I were to hold on to those Baconian dreams of translating knowledge to better realities in the world – of less suffering, of adapting in a changed-climate, then it would have to be through organizations.

And with selling my books, I abandon most of these dreams, and live a quieter, more contemplative life. Letting go of books was to let go all of these conceptions, to let go of that Baconian seed that started it all, and let the thorns wither and fly into the wind.

Ecclesiastes 1:18

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. 

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2 comments

  1. HF

    As someone close to me once said: “Your job doesn’t determine you. Even if you hold a stereotypical job in an uninteresting organisation, you can alter the parameters of the work to make your own little change in the world.” All the best! (And thanks for the Sagans and Asimovs. 🙂 )

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