Wisdom and Technology

It is often said that wisdom is the highest form of knowing. It is generally associated with a lifetime of experience (“He was a wise old man”) or generations of experience (“Wisdom passed down from generation to generation”) or nowadays, crowdsourcing (“The wisdom of the crowds”). Probably, the most common reference is to Conventional Wisdom. Conventional wisdom is often, but not always, “wise.” It can be:

Correct:  “If you don’t start saving for retirement early by the time you do start it will be too late and you won’t have enough money for your old age.”

Maybe correct: “I wouldn’t eat that mushroom if I were you.”

Incorrect: “We use only 10% of our brains.”

Last weekend my wife and I visited our cousin who has a vacation home on eastern Long Island. When we were heading back to Manhattan on Sunday afternoon I told her I was planning on taking the Long Island Expressway to the Midtown Tunnel (the shortest and most direct route). (The places and directions in this anecdote will be meaningful to New Yorkers, but understanding the exact directional details is unimportant.) She told me not to do that but to turn off the LIE at the Grand Central Parkway, go over the Triboro Bridge and come down the FDR Drive (a longer and much less direct route). “It’s how everyone does it because there is always a lot of traffic on the LIE between the exit to the Grand Central and the tunnel.”

Clearly an example of both the wisdom of experience (she’s done this commute hundreds of times) and the wisdom of the crowds, so I wasn’t inclined to doubt that it was true. Nevertheless, as I was approaching the place I was supposed to exit, I quickly looked at the traffic patterns on Google Maps and noticed that there was heavy traffic on the Grand Central, the bridge and the FDR Drive but light traffic through to the tunnel, so instead of exiting I continued straight on the LIE into the tunnel.

When I e-mailed her on Monday to thank her for the weekend I mentioned that we wound up going through the tunnel and that there was very little traffic. She e-mailed me back and told me I was lucky. I responded that it wasn’t luck but the triumph of technology over conventional wisdom.

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