Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Burden of Knowledge


This morning, I watched a Google Ideas Hangout on employing data analysis to stamp out human trafficking. The hangout itself was very informative, and I encourage everyone to give it a listen. Human trafficking is a major problem, partly due to movements across linguistic and political borders that hamper effort to identify victims and bring slavers to justice.

The discussion got me thinking about the moral burdens incurred by knowledge. If our increasingly networked world enables the creation of a global community, the problems of one region become everyone's problems. From the perspective of problem-solving, this is good because it means more people working on solving the problem. Without awareness of those problems, the work of solving them never gets off of the ground.

On the other hand, one of the problems we face is information overload as all of these new connections compete for our attention. When you consider that the CIA pays an entire staff of analysts to comb through the publicly available news from all over the world, it becomes clear that no one person can manage the glut of news, controversy, politics, and history that make our what it is at any given moment. In the face of that challenge, the easy thing to do is choose to manage the information most relevant to you and let the rest slide by unless it becomes more relevant.

Unfortunately, the easy thing is not always the ethical thing. We cannot form or maintain a global community if we turn away from suffering, even suffering that happens far away. The First Mindfulness Training of Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of Inter-Being is to discipline ourselves to turn toward the suffering of others. Once we make that contact, we activate our empathy and compassion such that, after a while, it is harder to turn away. More practically speaking, if we are not aware of the troubles and strife in the world, we are unlikely to do anything to ameliorate them.

If that's the case, there may be a moral obligation to manage our information sources to keep ourselves informed and engaged. Again, no one person can remain tuned into every atrocity, and there may be good psychological reasons not to try, but it does not seem like too much to ask of ourselves to make an effort to be more mindful in choosing our information sources. To seek out channels that will bring to light news and situations of which we were not aware, to listen to arguments and advocacy, and to pass these things along to those close to us - these three requests, if implemented, can make a person more informed, more sensitive, and more prone to act, even in some small way.

The human trafficking problem is an interesting example of how a little awareness can make a difference. During the Hangout, the initiative Truckers Against Trafficking was lauded as a success that needs to be repeated in other industries. Truckers and other transport workers are in a position where they occasionally encounter the victims of human trafficking. Truckers Against Trafficking provides truckers with information about how to identify potential victims and how to inform law enforcement and other relevant agencies. The point raised by TAT in their materials is that truckers do not have to go out of their way to sniff out the victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking comes to truckers, but without the knowledge about how to address the problem, these instances go unreported, or end up reported to an agency that doesn't have the standing or information to act.

A little awareness, a little information, and a little bit of passing it along goes a long way with Truckers Against Trafficking and for many of us. With just a little extra effort, really a bit of attention to being informed, anyone can make a difference.