Is more in­for­ma­tion mak­ing us wiser?

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY SULE­MAN AKHTAR

Words were never so worth­less; they were never so abun­dant ei­ther.

Words said by the greats of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion. Words of scrip­ture, of lit­er­a­ture and films, of news; they sur­round us ev­ery­where, at all times. They are dead though.

Gone are the days when they would weave wis­dom. In our age, they be­long to the realm of in­for­ma­tion only. They are the to­tal sum of let­ters and noth­ing else.

What lies be­tween them is no more dis­cernible. They are statis­tics, and facts, and news, and verses, and mere de­tails. “Whither wis­dom? Whither knowl­edge?” we hear a great hue and cry.

But then hu­mans are more in­formed to­day than ever. Aren’t they?

That is prob­a­bly the great­est con­tra­dic­tion the post­mod­ern world has brought with it. Is more and more in­for­ma­tion mak­ing us more knowl­edge­able and wise? It is quite the con­trary, sadly.

Over­abun­dance of “in­for­ma­tion” has clut­tered our minds. The out­come is mere noise sans any mean­ing.

Cu­rated Face­book time­lines, Twit­ter feeds, 24/7 news chan­nels, the daily pa­pers ... so enor­mous is the mag­ni­tude of in­for­ma­tion that public dis­course solely re­volves around what is hap­pen­ing, leav­ing a lit­tle space for the dis­cus­sion as to why it is hap­pen­ing.

We are speak­ing, post­ing, and ar­gu­ing cease­lessly about mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions, ter­ror­ism in­ci­dents, tele­vised rev­o­lu­tions, and politi- cal state­ments only to for­get them once the next in­for­ma­tion tid­bit flies our way and be­comes the talk of the town.

What barely gets any at­ten­tion is how th­ese events are shap­ing our lives and the so­ci­ety as a whole.

The words are the same, but they have ceased to mean any­thing. A case- in- point is the term “revo­lu­tion,” which stands stripped of its his­tor­i­cal mean­ings in our times. A revo­lu­tion with­out ide­ol­ogy is a mere re­volt that ul­ti­mately strength­ens the sta­tus quo in­stead of chal­leng­ing its very ex­is­tence.

But then, ide­ol­ogy comes with per­spec­tive, which is the ul­ti­mate vic­tim of the post­mod­ern age. We hear right-wing politi­cians singing Habib Jalib on our TV screens; the same right-wing mind­set Jalib had been crit­i­ciz­ing through­out his life.

Che Gue­vara, a quin­tes­sen­tial icon of the left, has come to be a new fash­ion state­ment of the mid­dle classes that largely sub­scribe to right-wing po­lit­i­cal ideals. Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of the past stand can­on­ized and the words ut­tered by them have as­sumed the char­ac­ter of Psalms be­ing re­cited in con­gre­ga­tions just for the heck of it.

A quo­ta­tion or a say­ing thrown around with­out per­spec­tive is tan­ta­mount to a mere build­ing­brick that can be used to con­struct any­thing, no mat­ter how ir­rel­e­vant that con­struc­tion is to the quote’s orig­i­nal con­text.

Any­one can find a sen­tence or two from Voltaire’s work in sup­port of clergy. Some­thing can be cherry-picked from Faiz’s work in fa­vor of Fas­cism. Rumi is al­ways handy in ex­press­ing af­fec­tion­ate feel­ings be­tween op­po­site gen­ders.

Words shorn of con­text mean noth­ing or could be made to mean any­thing at all, and the so­cial me­dia seems to be cham­pi­oning this dis­ease in con­tem­po­rary so­cial life.

Not hav­ing an opin­ion is con­sid­ered an anom­aly. This is why we are flooded with ill-in­formed opin­ions th­ese days, and why so­ci­eties are so much more po­lar­ized around the world.

We leap on to our de­vices to voice our “takes” and “views” and “opin­ions” on just about any­thing we want be­cause isn’t that free­dom of ex­pres­sion, our most sa­cred of val­ues? We ex­press with­out know­ing and com­pen­sate for what we don’t know by ma­nip­u­lat­ing what lit­tle we do, even as in­for­ma­tion, iron­i­cally, is just a click away.

We take to so­cial me­dia and post about some nov­el­ist who has just been awarded a No­bel Prize in lit­er­a­ture, by quot­ing from her works avail­able on the In­ter­net. The whole ex­er­cise cre­ates an illusion of knowl­edge that is not there in the first place — a mi­rage of wis­dom that is not real.

We can dis­cuss books in length with­out read­ing them, write cri­tique of movies with­out watch­ing them, and have an opin­ion about po­lit­i­cal the­o­ries with­out hav­ing the slight­est idea about them. We call this the “Age of In­for­ma­tion” and con­sider our­selves free.

Truth is, words are dead. We per­form a re­quiem for them ev­ery­day.

Enough way­ward words have been ut­tered. Enough fan­ci­ful facts have been es­tab­lished. Enough dra­matic de­tails have been penned down. We need the sto­ries that en­able us to weave those pesky words to­gether and make sense of the world we live in.

We need the tales.

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