Vol. 5 Num 19 Tue. June 15, 2004  

Knowledge society, information society and gossip society

Social scientists and assorted pundits are often prolific in giving names to new social order. As society changes, the old name becomes defunct. Agricultural society gave way to industrial society, which was followed by post-industrial society, a name given by Daniel Bell of Harvard University and Alain Touraine of France almost at the same time. (Incidentally, both of them are sociologists). Agriculture is the main mode of production, employing the vast majority of the people, in an agricultural society. In an industrial society, industrial activities dominate the economy. In a post-industrial society, the majority of the population is employed neither in agriculture nor in the industrial sector, but instead are pushers of papers. The service sector, or the tertiary sector, becomes predominant in this stage. This is the phase that Alvin Toffler called "The Third Wave."

In recent years, a new name has been invented for the post-industrial society: it is information society, knowledge society, knowledge-based economy, or KBE in short. We are somehow attracted to neologisms. I have two reservations with regard to information society. First, I see a tendency to hype information society or knowledge society. These are societies where not everything is knowledge or information. I still need to wear shirts and pants tailored by hardworking men and women who work long hours in garment factories. I eat food produced by hardworking peasants and workers in food processing industries. The only information I can wear is the T-shirt with graffiti that declares the name of a popular sports club or a brand-name university. The only information I can possibly eat is the alpha-byte cereals. Other than these exceptions, I use information and knowledge like my forefathers did in their times. In those days they needed little information, now we need more. In an agricultural society, the peasants more or less knew what they were supposed to know. If I am a rickshaw puller in Jamalpur I need to know the roads of the town (more or less) and the timing of the arrival of trains from Dhaka. I don't need to know much about the weather or air pressure. Frankly, I don't need a radar. But if you are flying a plane you need much more information.

In today's world, there seems to be an oversupply of information. Most of the information we have is not always very useful. There seems to be a culture of spam (unsolicited and often unnecessary emails). In the United Kingdom it is estimated that more than half of all emails are spam. Regular users of the internet (fortunately, still a minority of the world population) are the victims of spam. Most of us -- users of the internet or not -- are bombarded with information whether we need it or not. The ubiquitous media quickly disseminates all sorts of information. There has been a true media revolution. I was better off before satellite television. I did not have to watch an elderly Palestinian woman looking for her medicine in her bulldozed house in the Rafa refugee camp, I would not have to endure watching the brutalisation of POWs in Iraq (many of whom are apparently innocent) or the decapitation of US civilian captives. My quality of life is often compromised by the sights of injustice and inhumanity compounded by my utter inability to do anything about them. This is another side of the information society. We have a lot of information on what is going on, but not enough on what can be done or ought to be done, and much less on how to do it. We lack a moral compass to navigate through the thickets of information.

Secondly, I see a tendency to create a one size fits all mentality. First of all, I see a difference between knowledge and information. Information is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the creation of knowledge. Information is the brick out of which the structure of knowledge is made. In fact, I see three types of society. Some societies are driven by knowledge. People have access to knowledge though the majority may choose not to access it. Here, the US is a case in point, where the knowledgeable sections such as academics, scientists, doctors, and so on, are the most knowledgeable, whereas the vast majority of average people are fairly ignorant about the world. And they don't mind their ignorance. But that is OK. As long as the experts remain knowledgeable, they can stay course. One of the attributes of knowledge is that it is amenable to change. New knowledge replaces old knowledge. In these societies, one has the right to information and knowledge. In the US, the Freedom of Information Act is a milestone and a tribute to democracy. The culture of knowledge and the search for truth make possible the existence of Seymour Hersh whose articles in the New Yorker broke the news of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.

Then there are societies that can be called information societies. There is an abundance of information. These societies value information and have created infrastructures for the collection, processing, and dissemination of information. For example, I can find out by the flick of my computer mouse how many people die of cancer in Singapore each year. Or, how many people die of road accidents. I don't think I can get the same information with regard to Bangladesh or Pakistan. However, the correlates of knowledge such as freedom and access to all kinds of information are still lacking in these societies.

Bangladesh is neither a knowledge society nor an information society. Ours is a "gossip society" -- a society of stories or fictions. Let us take the example of date of birth. The majority -- I will hazard a guess here -- of the people of Bangladesh have fictitious dates of birth. There is a made up date of birth as shown in academic certificates or passports, which is at variance with the actual date of birth. Even for persons holding high office, we have seen different dates of birth in print. Unless we believe in simultaneous reincarnation, it is difficult to make sense of this phenomena. Maybe some parents invent a fictitious date of birth for their children either to ensure a longer tenure of job or more time for finding a suitable boy for their daughter. But this might also mean delaying of pensions in some countries. Some Bangladeshi workers I spoke to in Singapore told me their real names are different from the ones they have in the passport. The death tolls of disasters in Bangladesh are often imprecise. Ours is a society of estimates.

In many interviews that I conducted in Bangladesh when I asked for information, I got a story, a fiction. Sometimes, stories are useful narratives. Exchange of stories and sharing of gossip are useful social glues. We can see the emotions, political positions, and the power of imagination of the storytellers, but they do not serve the cause of gathering solid information. Without credible information, we cannot formulate viable policies. Governance suffers from inadequate and imprecise information. This is another reason why our history remains hugely contested. This is different from historical controversies that we find in the literature of historiography elsewhere. Our penchant for stories is unlimited. Now let's find out a way where stories and histories can coexist without replacing each other. We need stories and gossip but not at the expense of knowledge and information.

Dr. Habibul Haque Khondker is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.