Practical Knowledge

The Greeks believed in the telos, the idea that all things had a purpose. The way that this purpose was achieved, the way each objective was served, was with techne. Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato would sit and study something – like a chair – to discover its telos and the techne through which it is accomplished. This process, this intuitive understanding of what something is and why, was known as phronesis. It is the method of real analysis and the mark of wisdom.

This is what we miss from blogs. We have plenty of discussion and speculation, but rarely any understanding of the issues at their most basic level. This happens because too often writers look only at the numbers and theory and never the underlying human transaction. I’m guilty of this too, this internet autism. I remember the time I spent days looking online for a college professor’s info before I thought to try a phone book.

The debate about magazines and newspapers is a good example. Whether newspapers have a grim or bright future is irrelevant, but take note of how brazenly bloggers throw around the idea of going printless. They’ve examined a small part of the equation – that printing is an expensive economic model while digital is cheap – and assume it’s all they need to know. What they’ve lost is that maybe the true telos of printed news isn’t delivery but disposability. Ironically, the experts who coined the “attention economy” lack the human empathy to conceive what it’s like to walk through an airport and pick up something to read, or to pay $80 a year to get the Wall St Journal delivered, even if you only read it maybe two days a month. Not once did they think of a doctor’s office or a waiting room, the places where print media best fulfills its purpose.

Watch Jarvis throw around things like the death of real estate agents or the death of lawyers. He misses the currency that these professions trade on: unfamiliarity, convenience, deference, negotiation. That if you were a busy person looking for a new house, you wouldn’t pay someone to put together a list of those that fit your criteria, drive you to each one and handle the paperwork? And why shouldn’t they get paid proportionally to the size of the sale? Zillow, as great as it is, doesn’t change the most basic underlying condition: that staring at a city of houses and finding the right one by yourself is a daunting prospect. It makes it worse.

It’s funny because on the one hand, these types are incapable of seeing beyond their own reality. On the other, they don’t intuitively understand that reality either. They never sat down like Aristotle and examined the aims and objectives. They used the “what” to distract themselves from the “why.” Like Plato wrote, they grope around in the dark, confusing cause and effect and ascribing both where they don’t belong.

Good analysis requires understanding. Understanding requires thinking beyond the superficial notions of what we think things are and looking at the assumptions and facts that undergird them. To understand news, look at the human and economic conditions that contributed to their evolution. Before you throw out revolution predictions or herald new epochs, ask yourself: which of them have changed? And evolution is a good frame of reference because what often happens in biology is that mutations introduce radical changes which are then worn and shaped by their environment, leaving us with small, incremental progress.

The important thing isn’t that most blogs are worthless. They’re just a good example of how important the right kind of information is – that the type of knowledge that translates into real insight is the type that delves to the core of the issue. And that since the Greeks, we’ve been struggling with charlatans who lack the ability to get there. We would all be better served to break things down, to discern a telos, isolate the techne, and build towards phronesis.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.