Sunday, January 8, 2006
Knowledge and wisdom
Newsweek brings out excellent annual special editions on issues of the year ahead, and is appropriately called Issues. Brought out in association with the World Economic Forum, Issues 2006 is in its sixth year and is undoubtedly worth preserving. This time the topic is the "new world of knowledge".
By virtue of being a journalist, I am constantly dealing with the dynamics and dissemination of information, and thus, this year's Issues, comprising 44 essays, is of particular interest to me. Unlike in the past editions, Newsweek this time managed to get a number of prominent personalities to write, like: CEOs of Google, GE, Infosys, Cisco; Bill Gates, Prime Ministers of Britain, Sweden, Singapore etc.
I have always wondered why in this age of "information explosion" and "information overload", the temporal aspects of human life haven't shown a proportional improvement. Science and technology have made quantum leaps ahead. But human attitudes have remained where they were, at best. We haven't still understood the value of knowledge. Instead of assimilating information and adapting to one's requirements, there is constant efforts by people and institutions to unfairly, hurriedly judge knowledge as right and wrong. Censorship and various other forms of bans only negate the advantages the surfeit of knowledge and the ease of its dissemination offer us.
I liked this year's Issues because it deals with many such points.
Bill Gates in his piece writes: "Most of the knowledge on which the knowledge economy is built is actually just information -- data, facts and basic business intelligence. Knowledge itself is more profound. As management guru Tom Davenport once put it: 'Knowledge is information combined with experience, context, interpretation, and reflection.' It's the knowledge derived from information that gives you a competitive edge."
But Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria takes this further, and analyses this information explosion much better. He says: "Diffusion of knowledge is the dominant trend of our time and goes well beyond the purely scientific... (But) knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom. Knowledge can produce equally powerful ways to destroy life, intentionally and unintentionally. It can produce hate and seek destruction. Knowledge does not by itself bring any answer to ancient Greek question: What is Good Life? It does not produce good sense, courage, generosity and tolerance. And most crucially, it does not produce the farsightedness that will allow us all to live together -- and grow together -- on this world without causing war, chaos and catastrophe. For that we need wisdom."
Somewhat in the same line, Danny Quah of London School of Economics writes: "(Today) there is one commodity in excess supply. It's knowledge -- and in the long run, the overlooked knowledge glut could be more dangerous than the many more obvious shortages. Though the raw supply of knowledge is booming, the fraction we use productively is plummeting to ever-lower depths." He says knowledge shouldn't be bottled up, but be disseminated. "History shows that successful societies favour dissemination.... Blocking the free flow of knowledge, paradoxically, exacerbates the excess supply, diminishes human welfare and puts us on the road to economic extinction."