Information Rich, Knowledge Poor
How the society in general and the student community in particular mistake information availability with knowledge acquisition, writes Ashok Ogra.
The current information explosion – triggered by internet and other telecommunication technologies - reminds me of the noted English poet T.S.Eliot:
"Where is life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
A visit to a modern college or an institute book library reveals an interesting phenomenon of the students retreating into cabins providing internet access, and the books (lying unopened and rarely issued), gathering dust. No wonder, in most of the learning institutes the position of a librarian stands diminished, almost superfluous.
It is difficult for the youth of today to accept that one of the greatest librarians and information sciences specialists of Asia late Prof. Prithvi Nath Kaula whom the prestigious The Times (London) literary supplement described “one of the most influential librarians of the world” was born in the valley. He was honoured with Padmashri in 2004.That was the standing Librarians have held in the society not long ago.
It is generally acknowledged that access and availability of information truly indicates the development stage of a nation - particularly a developing country. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Media penetration – both in reach and consumption – is very high in the developed countries of Europe and the US when compared with developing countries, mostly concentrated in the southern hemisphere.
Take India’s case: notwithstanding the recent unprecedented growth in the entire media and entertainment industry in India- particularly in the regional press and Television- we only have 5600 dailies and 20,000 periodicals with a combined circulation of just 142 million for an adult population of around 800 million. This is far too low as compared to western societies. However, the advent of internet coupled with the birth of mobile phone technology ( both reasonably cheap and easy to handle as far as consumers are concerned !) have enabled countries in Asia and Africa to leapfrog into ‘information-rich’ category without much effort and with great speed. While it took Doordarshan 50 years to reach 150 million households, the mobile subscriber base has already touched an impressive figure of around 40 crores; 1.5 crore subscribers are added every month. By 2012, India will have over 70 crores mobile users. This explosion is not limited to select cities / towns and or regions but happening across the country including rural areas, enabling people of all economic classes to connect and stay connected. And Mobiles are no longer used only for ‘connecting people’ but will soon be capable of receiving high-quality television programmes and news in text format. The internet base, though small at present, too is increasing and expanding into inaccessible areas.
We need to acknowledge that web is here to stay. And to quote the noted journalist and author Thomas Friedman the Web is also for the first time ‘flattening the world’ blunting the edge that the West enjoyed due to early industrialization and, in the process, enabling the less developed countries to forge ahead economically regardless of the minimal telecommunication infrastructure existing in developing countries only a decade back.
Also, communication is no longer seen only ‘aiding development’ process but is considered central to development. The senior Singaporean diplomat and author Kishore Mahbubani, in his recent book “ The News Asian Hemisphere : The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East ”, quotes a study by London Business School that an extra ten mobile phones per hundred people in a developing country leads to an additional 0.5 percentage points of growth in GDP per person. It is believed that one cell phone in Bangladesh adds US$ 6000 to national GDP. Time and again it has been proven that if you connect people, they become more productive.
So there is every reason to welcome the introduction of new digital technologies that are facilitating easy and fast delivery of information in developing countries. However, it is necessary that we reflect on the consequences resulting from this unprecedented (and somewhat uncontrolled) growth and access. It is now widely believed that the web – a key component of the emerging digital lifestyle that the younger generation across the world has embraced faithfully- is killing the appetite (and necessity) for printed books. The 21st century so-called ‘digital geeks’ see little, if any, value in books - preferring instead ‘packaged information’ that is so easily and freely available on the web. Sadly, most of it downloadable!
Imagine the information overload: 1.5 crore articles are available on the web and the number is increasing in geometrical proportions. Similarly, the ‘Flicker.com’ has so far already uploaded over 4 crore photographs. We already have over 300 crore people across the world who are internet users. The entire encyclopedia Britannica series can be transferred in the blink of an eye.
However, what this information overload does is to create a false impression among the students who mistake ‘access to information’ with ‘knowledge acquisition’ forgetting that information unless applied and interpreted is nothing more than facts and data. Knowledge consists of perspectives and concepts, judgments and expectations, methodologies and know-how, and is accumulated and integrated and held over time to handle specific situations and challenges. The other danger with this easy access is that the white noise of the ever-faster information super highway may, one fears, lead to hasty, early and perhaps wrong conclusions! For instance, a smart bank executive remembering your account number does not make that person knowledgeable. What would constitute knowledge is if the concerned person is able to suggest you ways and means of efficiently managing your account portfolio so that the value of your wealth continues increasing.
Notwithstanding the damage that book reading has received due to these new technologies, it is not desirable to either ban or control access to the web. That is not only not effective but also retrograde – unless, of course, the penalty proposed for violating the state ban on the open use of web is too high as it is in China or North Korea or in some African countries.
Therefore, the challenge we all face is how to deal with Internet ‘as an ocean of Information’ and yet not let the students starve for knowledge and suffer from what some psychologists describe the phenomenon of ‘Information Anxiety’. Or simply put : how do we ensure that our students do not get drowned in the deluge of data and facts and yet are able to give meaning and provide context to the information being accessed on the web.
It is said that “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”. Hence we may take a lesson from the forces that shaped renaissance, reformation and liberation that first started in northern Italy and soon spread to rest of the continent. The mass printing of books played a key role during that period as it created the much need ‘Thirst for Curiosity’, thus enabling Europe to come out of the dark ages leaving the east far behind.
It is difficult for our younger generation to accept that in the past valley school students used to hugely value ‘used text books’. I am reminded of the famous ‘Book Bazar’ of the 1960s held at the beginning of every new academic session at the Habba Kadal chowk where students would sell ( or call it primitive form of auctioning!) their book to prospective students from across the valley, and utilize the money thus earned for buying used books prescribed for the new class. The condition and the quality of binding determine the price of these second hand books.
May be Mr. Z.G.Muhammad who in his column ‘Nostalgia’ prefers reminiscing rather than tell a story ( as in most cases memory is the seed of his narrative), also reflects on this great book festival that used attract one and all cutting across class and religious affiliations.
Meanwhile, schools have the responsibility of equipping the children how to deal with this new emerging ‘digital life-style’ and emphasize that knowledge is as important, if not more, as information. Schools must create an ambience that encourages the young minds to be ‘restless’ and develop in them the necessary ‘Thirst for Knowledge’ for things beyond what is taught through text books.
Similarly, parents have the responsibility to encourage their children to buy and read both newspapers and books. This can be very effectively realized if parents also start subscribing to daily newspapers and buying / procuring books. They need to listen to advise of Gandhi Ji : “ children do not do what parents want them to do. They do what they see parents doing.”
By the time a student reaches a college, he or she should be familiar with how to effectively utilize the web for gaining data and facts and matured enough to seek context to information in newspapers and books.
It is also hoped that the owners of huge palatial houses (some having marble flooring so un-suited for Kashmir winter) that dot the new colonies in Srinagar city care to identify little space for book shelves so as to break the monotony of marble floors and start celebrating the fact that “books also decorate homes”.
(The author, a native of Kashmir, is a noted Management and Media Educator and is currently Founding Director of the Apeejay Institute of Mass Communication. He was until recently Vice President, Discovery Channel & Animal Planet in South Asia. Feedback at: email@example.com)
Lastupdate on : Fri, 9 Apr 2010 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Fri, 9 Apr 2010 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sat, 10 Apr 2010 00:00:00 IST
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