Spock, Socrates and the Search Engines

Thoughts occassioned by this post.

On the old Star Trek TV series, the Vulcan Spock once observed that, “Having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” Well, it is always a little dangerous to get philosophy from a television program, but there is certainly something to that statement; what may be most peculiar, though, is that there are some cases where, contrary to Spock’s impressions, it is perfectly logical. Specifically: the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is supposed to have figured out that wisdom is not something one can possess, but rather must be ever pursued — a curious parallel.

If anyone doubts that Socrates is still relevant after all these centuries, he need only look at programming. There is no secret school where the code geniuses are methodically taught everything there is to know about computers. There is no magical gene that makes some people technology wizards and sets them apart from the world of mundane folk. I have a relative who studied music in school and is now the go-to guy at his office job not only for his own role but for seemingly any computer problem anyone else doesn’t know how to solve — and his secret is simply that he finds the manual and looks up what he needs to know. It’s his ability and willingness to learn more that allows him to solve problems. These days internet search engines have largely replaced manuals, but the principle is the same: the more a programmer or hacker seems to know, the more likely it is that they taught themselves by looking stuff up and working with it till they understand why it does what it does.

Spock’s comment calls to mind the universal temptation of ingratitude: that we can always imagine something we’d rather have than what we do have. However, if Socrates’s insight is also right, then there’s a remarkable parallel to knowledge itself: what you have, though it is real, is not the most important part… It’s the recognition that you should learn more and grow in understanding that makes the biggest difference.

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