Friday musing: tribal knowledge and elders

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It’s Friday. Let’s think about something different than pure marketing and business.

In all of our collective societies, elders have long been respected as the keepers of knowledge. Your tribal elders know the oral history of your tribe, who’s who, what happened, and as such, we have rightfully venerated our elders for millennia. Even infirm, they have been necessary parts of our mental collective, our human hive mind. We see this even in our marketing; almost every food manufacturer claims something from Grandma’s recipes.

Mohegan Wigwam FestivalScene from the Mohegan Wigwam Festival

So here’s where the musing begins. The information age has put our collective tribal knowledge “in the cloud”. Today, you’re more likely to pull out your smartphone and ask Google rather than use that same phone to call Grandma. A highly speculative consequence of the ever-increasing accessibility of information could be a small part of the reason why our societal perspective on our elders has changed from venerated to burdensome, from eldest tribal shaman to overhead left in a nursing home. It’s by no means the only cause or even likely to be a significant cause, but I can’t help but think it’s in there.

Where we are collectively making a mistake is in believing that knowledge equals wisdom. There is currently no way to store and transfer wisdom effectively. We can create knowledge that describes the wisdom we see and experience, but we can’t transfer the experience itself. Google as much as you want for watermelons; no amount of knowledge transfer can give you the experience of biting into a slice of watermelon on a hot summer day. You can download entire copies of scrolls from different martial arts systems, everything that their founders thought important, but doing so doesn’t make you a martial artist. That knowledge only becomes important when it’s applied, when you transform it into experiences that ultimately become wisdom.

In our quest for more and more information, I have to wonder if we’ve lost sight of wisdom, and thus value each other and especially our elders much less than we used to.

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One response to “Friday musing: tribal knowledge and elders”

  1. Great post Christopher!
    Reminds me of the saying “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to use it in a fruit salad.”

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