As some people see things, we are living in the Information Age. That is, the dominating and distinguishing attribute of our era is information. Earlier eras were known as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The distinguishing characteristic was the materials the used. But our age is different. It is not so much the materials or tools we use, but how we use them. It is the guiding information that sets us apart from previous ages.
Even though information is a blessing—after all, the Internet is also known as the Information Superhighway for a reason—there are some drawbacks associated with the process. I see three critical aspects of information: accessibility, accuracy, and utility. These are some of the basic questions of informatics.
One of foremost problems with information was noted by Thomas Sowell. Although he was speaking as an economist, his point applies generally:
“Knowledge is one of the most scarce of all resources.” (Basic Economics, 14)
The book of Job asks, “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” (Job 28:12) Of course we can partially answer Job by saying that wisdom can be found in public libraries, the Internet (with a grain of salt), and at learning establishments, among other places.
That is why this era of human history is so prosperous—we have all of this readily accessible information. Instead of being locked-up in royal archives, or sequestered in remote monasteries, our information is superabundant.
Even so, books go out of print, are lost and damaged, and Internet links sometimes go dead. The question “where is wisdom?” in part still remains.
Nowadays it has become proverbial to respond to ridiculous ideas by saying, “Oh? I bet you read that on the Internet!” This sarcasm underscores the point that it is one thing to know a fact, and the another matter entirely to know if said fact is true. The questions we ask are: Is our information accurate? Is it reliable? And how can we verify the information?
The problem is further compounded because even good people make mistakes. The Book of Mormon, which is another testament of Jesus Christ comparable to the Bible, has a passage that strikes me as relevant. In it, an ancient prophet describes the word’s infosphere in the last days:
“They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.” (2 Nephi 28:14)
“And my vineyard has become corrupted every whit; and there is none which doeth good save it be a few; and they err in many instances because of priestcrafts … ”(D&C 33:4)
And another revelation speaks of people who are:
“ … honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men.”(D&C 76:75)
So good people can make mistakes, and there are sometimes shady people who are less than honorable. And these character flaws and the occasional bald-faced mischief can hamper the information we receive. Information thereby becomes disinformation, or even worse: noninformation.
The last aspect of information is utility. Joseph Smith once spoke of “correct (though useless) knowledge” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 287). After accessing the information, and verifying it, the question remains as to how to put it to good use.
With some backwoods imagery, Joseph Smith observed:
“A man never has half so much fuss to unlock a door, if he has a key, as though he had not, and had to cut it open with his jack-knife.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 307)
We’ve all done this—used a butter knife as a screwdriver. It works, but it is not as effective as using the proper tool the right way. The same holds true for information. At one meeting I attended, one of the people kept offering solutions to non-existent problems. As the proverb goes, “To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.”
It’s that tool imagery again. But information is not so much a tool as a guide for how to use the tools we have. Sometimes we use the wrong tool, or more commonly, we use the right tool the wrong way. Information helps sort out these types of practical questions.
JOSEPH SMITH’S INSIGHT
I am impressed how Joseph Smith handled these three problems of information—accessibility, accuracy, and utility. The amazing thing about this is that he was born in 1805. So not only was he pre-Information Age, he was also pre-Industrial Age. Although the Industrial Age had its beginnings in the late 1700s, this was primarily in England. Joseph Smith lived far outside of the pale of its potency.
Also, by his own admission Joseph Smith was more of a backwater hillbilly than intellectual titan. Describing himself at fourteen years, he said that he was:
“ … an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor.”(JS-History 1:23)
And his poverty limited his education:
“And being in indigent circumstances, were obliged to labor hard for the support of a large family, having nine children. And as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the family, therefore, we were deprived of the benefit of an education. Suffice it to say, I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground rules of arithmetic, which constituted my whole literary acquirements.” (1832 History, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 10. Standardized.)
And I love the letter to his wife that he wrote from New York City. It reminds me of the fable of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse. As a wide-eyed country yokel, he was over-awed by the big city:
“This day I have been walking through the most splendid part of the City of New York. The buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing of every beholder.”
“And the language of my heart is like this: Can the great God of all the Earth maker of all things magnificent and splendid be displeased with man for all these great inventions sought out by them? My answer is no, it cannot be, seeing these works are calculated to make men comfortable wise and happy.” (Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 277ff. Standardized)
So his insights (and foresight) into informatics are uncanny. They certainly were not part of his intellectual environment and upbringing.
Joseph Smith was a champion of transparency. In 1830 he published the Book of Mormon. Then in 1835, he published a book of his revelations the Doctrine and Covenants. He also set the pattern for regular church periodicals that lasts to this day. He also pioneered adult high education with the School of the Prophets and the University of Nauvoo.
In our day, the Mormon Church has added radio, television, satellite, cable, and internet media for distributing information.
Joseph Smith also utilized church conferences. There were both local and general conferences of the church, which now happen semi-annually. The point of all of this it to keep the information flowing. There was never a policy of “need to know.”
Joseph Smith taught:
“God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least [Mormon] may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them, for the day must come when no man need say to his neighbor, Know ye the Lord; for all shall know Him . . . from the least to the greatest [see Jeremiah 31:34].” (“Chapter 22: Gaining Knowledge of Eternal Truths,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 261–270.)
The Mormon Church’s information oversight is meticulous. The Correlation Department oversees the publication of church materials, lesson plans, magazines, and web content. This certifies that the information is trustworthy. This overseership began with Joseph Smith proofreading and editing the early church periodicals and the scriptures.
Joseph Smith affirmed that Mormonism embraces all truth:
“Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. . . . The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.” (Ibid.)
However, this does not mean that Mormons believe every idea. There must be a testing process to verify that the idea in question is true: “clearly demonstrated to our minds … and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.” That is why there is oversight.
Mormons also have their own personal “Oversight Committee” with the scriptures, the monthly periodicals, the church leaders, and prayer.
The first two aspects, accessibility and accuracy, are a corporate church responsibility. Utility is an individual responsibility.
A revelation explains:
“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.”
“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;”
“For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.” (D&C 58:26-28)
Joseph Smith pioneered what we now call “empowerment.” He said that there must be “a balance or equilibrium of power” between leadership and flock, so that “harmony and good-will may be preserved …” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 23). The free-flowing information empowers people to act on their own, and to act intelligently. The goal was to work harder, work smarter, and to work autonomously.
Joseph Smith’s reason for setting such a system has to do with the content of his message. He was a religious leader, so his message was of capital importance and eternal consequence. His message can be seen as having three main divisions: Absolute Truth, The Atonement, and the Principles of the Gospel.
Absolute Truth. Any discussion of Joseph Smith and information must begin with his belief in absolute truth. In one of his revelations, truth is defined this way:
“And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (D&C 93:24)
This definition embraces both the correspondence and the coherence theories of truth. It also bridges the objective and the subjective gap by emphasizing both the “things as they really are” and our knowledge of said things. Something can be true, but we can also be ignorant of the truth. We need to have both.
Spencer W. Kimball, twelfth president of Mormon Church taught:
“There are absolute truths and relative truths. The rules concerning what a person should eat have changed many times in my lifetime. Many scientific findings have changed from year to year. The scientists taught for decades that the world was once a nebulous, molten mass cast off from the sun, and later many scientists said it once was a whirl of dust which solidified. There are many ideas advanced to the world that have been changed to meet the needs of the truth as it has been discovered.”
“There are relative truths, and there are also absolute truths which are the same yesterday, today, and forever—never changing. These absolute truths are not altered by the opinions of men. As science has expanded our understanding of the physical world, certain accepted ideas of science have had to be abandoned because new truths have been discovered. Some of these seeming truths were stoutly maintained for centuries.”
“The sincere searching of science often rests only on the threshold of truth, whereas revealed facts give us certain absolute truths as a beginning point so we may come to understand the nature of man and the purpose of his life.” (Spencer W. Kimball, “Absolute Truth,” Ensign, Sep 1978, 3)
Mormonism deals with fixed and eternal principles, not with fuzzy ideas or shifting values.
The Atonement. When asked about the bare essentials of his faith, Joseph Smith replied:
“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” (“Chapter 3: Jesus Christ, the Divine Redeemer of the World,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 45–56.)
Joseph Smith’s focus was Christ. As Howard W. Hunter, the fourteenth president of the Mormon Church taught:
“The doctrine of the Resurrection is the single most fundamental and crucial doctrine in the Christian religion. It cannot be overemphasized, nor can it be disregarded. Without the Resurrection, the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes a litany of wise sayings and seemingly unexplainable miracles—but sayings and miracles with no ultimate triumph.” (Howard W. Hunter, “An Apostle’s Witness of the Resurrection,” Ensign, May 1986, 15)
That is why there is so much precision in overseeing the flow of information. If the Atonement can neither be overemphasized nor disregarded, then it also cannot be taught in a slipshod or an inaccurate way. We must have our facts straight and the doctrine pure. There is no salvation in believing a lie; there is no use in believing error.
Principles of the Gospel. Mormonism has thirteen Articles of Faith. The third and fourth focus on the core message:
“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”
“We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Articles of Faith 1:3-4)
In addition to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Mormonism has specific ordinances (sacraments), specific covenants, and specific rules of membership. These also need to be transmitted and taught with utmost care.
That is why Joseph Smith was cautious about going off on bizarre tangents and low-brow speculation. When counseling missionaries, he said:
“Declare the first principles, and let mysteries alone, lest ye be overthrown.” (“Chapter 28: Missionary Service: A Holy Calling, a Glorious Work,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 327–38)
The point is to accurately have the right content readily accessible for personal use.
When I began writing this blog, I had a sense of Joseph Smith’s uncanny insight into informatics. But after seeing the nuts and bolts of his informatics matrix, and that coming from a self-proclaimed poorly educated country boy, I am dumbfounded. He was operating way beyond his environmental and educational capacities.
Richard L. Bushman wrote:
“[Joseph Smith’s] natural bent was charismatic, not bureaucratic. His influence had come through his visionary gifts, not by appointing officers and assigning duties. Yet he formed institutions almost intuitively, showing a surprising aptitude for one with limited experience.” (Rough Stone Rolling, 111.)
Exactly. But the question remains, where did all of this come from? How do we explain this gap of experience when contrasted with the sound informatics he designed?
That is where faith in him as a prophet comes in. For me, the gap is too big to be ignored, bushed aside, or explained away. As I see it, there is only one possible explanation: he was a prophet.
I am also grateful that the promise of Isaiah may be fulfilled:
“They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine.” (2 Nephi 27:35)
That is the point of a pure information flow: to make us better people.