Manifesto for a new world
Knowledge and its equal distribution is the key to positive change,
argues ALAMGIR KHAN.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, wrote, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” In the present world, a person does not behave in Jefferson's way and is reluctant to share knowledge with another person who lacks it. Knowledge is made expensive by making it scarce. But scientific progress in technology is making it harder to make knowledge scarce. In the new world, knowledge will be in abundance and priceless though most valuable like air and sunlight. In that world the characteristics of knowledge will be in full play and everyone will understand it and think in Jefferson's way. This world is already knocking at our door.
Photo: JORG GREUEL/GETTY IMAGES
The other side of the coin
However, there is a danger of abusing the word knowledge as pointed out by Kunda Dixit: “The discovery of 'knowledge' by today's development merchants is a bit like the 'discovery' of America by Columbus. There is also a danger that like 'trickle down', 'basic needs approach', 'community participation', 'gender and development', or 'export-led growth', the wisdom of the ages is now going to be reduced to another jargon. And like all the extinct buzzwords that preceded it, 'knowledge' too is in danger of becoming threadbare with overuse and misuse.” (Exiled to cyberia, HIMAL, November 1999).
Another danger is to mix up knowledge and information, which are quite different. Information age is the dream world of business persons like Bill Gates, who says in his book Business at the Speed of Thought: Using a Digital Nervous System, “Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don't think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without talking about the other.” But knowledge society should not mean the mere information age we are encountering now.
A new world
It is rather close to A Modern Utopia, a World State dreamed by H. G. Wells, where, because of the development of science and technology, man is finally “emancipated from physical labour”. Wells said many times, “An immense, an ever-increasing wealth of knowledge is scattered about the world today, a wealth of knowledge and suggestion that -- systematically ordered and generally disseminated -- would probably give this giant vision and direction and suffice to solve all the mighty difficulties of our age” (H.G. Wells's Idea of a World Brain: A Critical Re-Assessment, W. Boyd Rayward, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, Volume 50, Issue 7, May 15, 1999)
Knowledge is power
Though “knowledge is power” is a very old maxim, until now there often existed a gap between knowledge and power. The person or community with knowledge may have existed without any power and again, the person or community with power may have existed without adequate knowledge. The gap has begun to be bridged nowadays. The world is rapidly moving towards a knowledge-based society. British author Charles Leadbeater figured it in this way: “Every day, we use tools -- computers, cars, telephones, microwaves -- that embody the intelligence of thousands of our fellow human beings. Modern economies are a system for distributing intelligence.” (Towards the knowledge society, New Statesman, July 12, 1999).
Therefore, management thinker Peter Drucker wrote, “The next society will be a knowledge society. Knowledge will be its key resource, and knowledge workers will be the dominant group in its workforce.' (A survey of the near future, The Economist, November 1, 2001). The society everywhere has begun passing through its door. Industrial society is more likely to embrace it before others, but the door to this society is open to all. Many developed countries have already put one step through this door. But it is more urgent for undeveloped countries to go through this archway. And of all the ways, it is the shortest, quickest and easiest way to development. However, this shortest, quickest and easiest way also demands some very hard efforts from policymakers, politicians and people.
Leapfrogging to knowledge society
Undeveloped countries like Bangladesh lag behind in many aspects, but not in all ways. They have some potential sides, like natural resources, human population, etc. Yet the resources are wasted away thanks to one weakness, and that is lack of knowledge, which is vital to be able to make use of those abundant resources and even turn our burden like over population into a resource. All this depends on only one thing, knowledge. Knowledge that is not piled into the hands of a few corrupt, rich, privileged and selfish people, but that belongs to every human being on this land, barring not a single soul. Education is the vehicle for creating this knowledge resource, which is weightless, borderless, ever growing through more dissemination, and yet the most valuable and powerful resource on earth.
Kunda Dixit's criticism of the idea of leapfrogging to knowledge society should also be given due respect and taken into account. He wrote in the afore-mentioned article, “Blaming underdevelopment entirely on lack of knowledge has two other dangers. It may make us overlook the fundamental economic factors that keep the poor poor, widening disparities between and within nations. It is a hen-or-egg question: are people poor because they lack knowledge, or do they lack knowledge because they are poor and cannot afford school books, radio batteries, telephones, or Internet service provider fees? Blaming it all on knowledge, or the lack thereof, is to avoid solving the structural problems that lead to inequity. Perhaps the trick is to make Knowledge affordable, and more importantly, relevant.” And “Before sticking a computer into a school, how about building a roof over it, or more importantly, staff it with some competent faculty?”
Digital strength of people in Bangladesh
One former president of Bangladesh used to say 10 crore Bangalis have 20 crore hands and he urged his subjects to work with these hands for progress. But it was only a political, also on the verge of poetical, rhetoric, which has not been very useful in making our progress possible. Because only hands themselves can do nothing if there is nothing for it to work on. To make progress, a new rhetoric is urgent that can be like: 160 million people have 160 million brains, in the digital language prevalent nowadays, 160 million most powerful computers on their shoulders, yet which are remaining underused. It is not the fault of the most powerful computers (brains) on our shoulders that they are underused, as it cannot be the fault of any computer in any office for its lack of use. Like in any office or company, it is the inefficiency of the management that the most powerful computers on earth are littered around without any function. Science says that a human brain is much more powerful than any computer ever built by mankind. To bring these 160 million super computers into full use, either the management has to make a very new plan, which is often impossible for any old-fashioned management, which is why many companies go down in the world, or the old management has to be replaced with a very new one. For a state, people who are its ultimate owners can do it and often they do so.
Building a roof over a school room, making the way for a computer into it
We must build a roof over a school room before sticking a computer into it. This kind of change is the hardest of all. Sixty million super computers will be reluctant to any change; many will even oppose any attempt for change, because they are the beneficiaries in the status quo. But they can be tackled in a soft and hard way by dealing with their software and hardware. One hundred million people in favour of the change, each with one super computer on his/her shoulder, must not want to be in a mess on the floor and always rusting away and underused; they must want a change, even if with some damages to their hardware. Anything in the world is possible if 100 million human brains want to do it and are in harmony in their desire. Change of the management of the state is a must for making possible the full use of every person's potentiality. A computer works best if it is maintained well, serviced regularly and continuously updated with new programmes. Only the brains of the sons and daughters of the managers and rulers including the rich and the looters are not the best computers taking lease of talent from Allah, every human child including the unwanted child of a beggar woman in a corner of any street or railway side anywhere in the country is capable of the same mental capacity if nourished and nurtured adequately. Then this will make no one poor, but everyone rich and happy and good.
Charles Leadbeater wrote in the same article, “Any society that writes off a third of its people, through poor schooling, family breakdown, poverty and unemployment, is throwing away precious assets: brainpower, intelligence and creativity. Our tolerance of this social failure is akin to the Victorians choosing to dump millions of tons of coal at sea, or to Henry Ford leaving machinery to rust out in the rain.”
We must not tolerate such rusting and wasting away of the brains of our people. A knowledge society is possible only if we “let a hundred flowers blossom” in all ways, otherwise not.
Alamgir Khan is Coordinator, Ethics Club