Information is fast and cheap. Knowledge is slow and expensive.

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation 

(Click on this link to hear a recorded version of the following piece)


Last week, a friend drew my attention to the Harvard University social scientist, Joan Donovan’s “5 Key Principles of Misinformation”. They are as follows:

  1.  Information is fast and cheap. 
  2. Knowledge is slow and expensive. 
  3. Search and social media circumvents social institutions by mixing up information and knowledge. 
  4. Everything open will be exploited for fun, politics, and profit. 
  5. In an active crisis, there is no real-time knowledge, only real-time information. 

This struck me as a helpful list, especially as we all find ourselves currently overwhelmed by the huge amount of extremely disturbing information, and misinformation, we are all receiving and consuming concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, it also struck me as a list that says something very helpful to us as a liberal religious community as we try to deal with our confusion about how best to respond to this unfolding horror.

Let’s briefly take Donovan’s points in turn.

1. Information is fast and cheap. 

One of the things we need to be clear about is that a genuinely living, liberal church community is not concerned to offer people fast and cheap information about the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Here, we know that truly meaningful answers to these things are multifarious, nuanced and hard-won and they are not capable of being turned into compressed, creedal, cheap pamphlet or fridge-magnet forms for easy display and consumption.

2. Knowledge is slow and expensive. 

In a genuinely living, liberal church community we are concerned to receive all the information available to us and, through a long, slow and expensive process — expensive in terms of time and effort that is — to digest and transform it into a living, existentially deep and nuanced knowledge of how we might best live a good, just and loving life. 

3. Search and social media circumvents social institutions by mixing up information and knowledge. 

A genuinely living, liberal church community is an example of the social institutions currently being circumvented that Donovan mentions and, as I have just indicated, within our living body we aren’t mixing-up information and knowledge but, instead, we are attempting always to be digesting information well and, in our institution’s gut, transforming it into incarnated knowledge, i.e. into actual, informed and committed liberal religious people. To reiterate, this is not a fast and cheap process but a very slow, expensive, life-long one of metamorphosis. 

I hope you can see that this means we function in a radically different way to the internet search-engine or a social-media platform because to encounter us is to meet with always-already being digested information about the world in the form of an incarnated knowledge about how we should be living in the world. 

4. Everything open will be exploited for fun, politics, and profit. 

In a genuinely living, liberal church community what we discover together is not something to be exploited for short term fun, politics, and immediate financial profit but something to be carefully metamorphosed via our very own bodies to produce a long-term, sustainable enjoyment of life, a polis created for all peoples — what we call in our tradition the kingdom, or perhaps republic, of God on earth — and the profit we hope to make is not an excess of money but an excess of love, compassion and justice. Again, this process is slow and expensive. 

5. In an active crisis there is no real-time knowledge, only real-time information. 

And here we come to perhaps the most difficult lesson of all found in this list. With confusing and horrific real-time information swirling around us day and night the temptation for any liberal church community is to enter that speeding whirlpool itself and to try to offer to its own members and the world, instant, Twitter-friendly, fridge-magnet sized responses and answers to the meaning of each and every new package of information received. 

But remember, here, we are all about knowledge, and knowledge does not move that fast — as Donovan says, there is no real-time knowledge production. 

Our task at this distressing time is, therefore, primarily to trust deeply, and with a clean heart, in our liberal religious community’s already incarnated knowledge about how best to be in the world that has been expressed most visibly in our two central exemplars. 

Firstly, in form of the human Jesus who was concerned to dissolve all of religion’s former supernatural, superstitious and apocalyptic ideas into a simple, if always challenging, existential, ethical demand for justice and love for all creation, right here, and right now. 

Secondly, in the form of Socrates who sought to help people freely to exercise their faculty of critical reason in seeking out new clues and empirical information about how the world is (and isn’t) and our current place in it.

Hold fast to these two exemplars and do not let yourself be sucked into the maelstrom of information overload because you already have enough knowledge, deep in your bones, about what is good and what the Lord requires of you: it is, as the ancient Jewish prophet Micah once proclaimed, to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).


Talitha Annan said…
"The Republic of God on Earth".

I've not heard this phrase before, though I suppose it must have been around as long as there have been people who desire a Republic as opposed to a monarchy or kingdom.

I like it. It is refreshing.

Though as an atheist (as far as the Christian God is concerned), I'd have to say that it doesn't go far enough.
Dear Tal,

Thanks for your comment. Much appreciated as always.

Just to note, re your last point, that, not coincidentally, I addressed precisely this point (albeit in a way that may not resonate with you!) in my last piece which you can find at the following link:

“Only a God can still save us”—a liberal religious confession
Anonymous said…
The irony here is, of course, that the image you’ve used for this blog-post (with Donovan’s key principles) would make a great fridge-magnet.

Which goes to show, I don’t think ‘fast and cheap’ is an issue of ‘presentation’ necessarily, but, as you say, the ‘reception’, or ‘digestion’ of such information – it’s a characterisation of people’s ‘listening’.

There are such things as a good tweet. In fact, whenever I allow my kids to indulge in YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok (and I often do), I don’t belittle such media on principle, as such, but I try and tell them something along the lines of, ‘what you’re watching, and find so entertaining, in my opinion, is precisely a great example of how it is done badly’. If they’re going to grow into fully-fledged tweeters, then I want them be good ones.

There’s many a fine epigram. Even poems can be fridge-magnet size. Songs or song lyrics too. In fact, a song is a great example. I’ve recently been rediscovering Radiohead (their song ‘Creep’ for example). You can listen to a song ‘cheaply’ because it sounds good which, in itself, can be an enormous source of pleasure which you can wind the window down to and sing out loud with. But if you actually read the lyrics and start thinking about them (if it really is a good song) then the song can become something quite expensive, truly valuable.

And ‘social media’. This is a problematic term. ‘Talking’, ‘writing’, ‘playing’, etc, etc. These are all ‘media’ that are ‘social’. As is a blog. I’m not convinced that even a tweet is a format beyond being turned into some kind of artform. There are good tweets and bad tweets, and a tweet is not beyond the possibility of inspiring great levels of thought. If only privatively.

One of the more pressing issues here, as far as I’m concerned, is that it is all very well for knowledge to be expensive. But time is money, as they say. That is, expensive knowledge is a privilege that most people are prejudicely inclined to say they cannot afford. We don’t seem to live in a world that sees the perfectly authentic converse to the aforementioned adage – that money is time. So, if you have a bit of money (and let’s face it, there are many today, in this country at least, who do), instead of spending it on a Range Rover, take a year off, sit in a humble little room, and spend all your time attempting to really listen to something.

Maybe only a God who can write divine 280 character polemics is the one who can now save us.

PS – I draw the line at emojis. They are just plainly satanically awful.