If there is a single abbreviation that defines the nature of new media discourse, it is 'RIP'.
From an expression of grief and condolence, the acronym 'RIP' has now come to represent one's status in erudition and updatedness; a knowledge statement. Every time a renowned author, an actor, or a public figure passes away, 'RIP' erupts as a buzzword on all kinds of interactive spaces on the internet.
I did not know that Abdullah Hussain, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Terry Pratchett had a wide readership in Pakistan, until my Facebook timeline was flooded with RIP posts for these authors, coupled with random quotes. Nor was I aware that Anita Ekberg, Christopher Lee and Omar Sharif were this popular until the RIPs started pouring out after their deaths. And only recently have I learned that La Dolce Vita and Doctor Zhivago have always been the two most favourite films in Pakistan. I am still sceptical.
I’m sceptical because we live in sceptical times. So sceptical are these times that we are forced to redefine the most fundamental, the most sublime of virtues we always have taken for granted.
There are calls to redefine Knowledge, which has always been the most unquestioned virtue of human beings. There are debates if education is the solution of all the ills of society. If yes, what education? What about the fact that a quite many of modern mass murderers and terrorists have emerged from well-educated backgrounds lately? Is any education a good education?
Also read: From IBA graduate to 'terror suspect'?
Interesting times, when the most firmly founded values are shaking like leaves in the wind.
Knowledge is the first victim of the age of information and fluid identity. The identity is not a fixed idea anymore. We are at many places at the same time. We are imprisoned in our bodies and at the same time we are out there on the internet, beyond our bodies, as an active part of the world that is ceaseless and boundless.
Today, we are more than our fleshly bodies. We are important, or at least we feel that way. Much more important than we used to be before the age of new media. In order to keep up with that boundless and ceaseless world out there, we need active participation.
We need to be knowledgeable in order to keep that feeling of being important alive. And therein lies the problem.
The problem is, we are only as knowledgeable as we are in our physical lives. Our virtual personas can not be any more knowledgeable than we actually are.
This is where data comes into the picture.
Data exists in innumerable forms on the internet. It is information, and news, and books, and quotes, and films, and essays, and everything. It’s only a click and some fractions of a second away from us. We can always manipulate data, learn a thing or two about some author who has just passed away, read a review of some book that we have never read, or go through some comments on a movie that we haven’t got the time to watch. This exercise usually suffices to put up an RIP post or put your two cents in some online discussion.
However, that is not end of story. The RIP phenomenon has its own far-reaching implications.
Take a look: My ‘pick and mix’ Muslim female identity
It imparts a false sense of knowledge that is not there in the first place. Knowledge has this distinctive quality to reflect in approach, opinions, and attitudes owing to the wisdom it sows into human mind. Information sans knowledge is not wisdom but pretence of wisdom, which is more lethal than the absence of wisdom. It leads to extreme opinions, uncivilised behaviours, and knee-jerk reactions. Virtual space is replete with it today.
The same is true for education. Education, in and of itself, is not an agent of social change. It is deeply rooted economic, historical and ideological factors, and their relation to the structure of power, which not only determine the social and political attitudes but also define what knowledge and education stand for in a particular time and age.
Just as data itself is not knowledge, curriculum and academia are not necessarily interchangeable to the grand concept of education that will put an end to all the misery of humanity. Both data and the curriculum are merely the means, their utility resting entirely with contemporary material conditions.
Also read: Is more information making us more wise?
For this very reason, it is important today to question our approach towards knowledge. By the same token, it is imperative today to challenge the axiom that education is a remedy for all social ills. There’s a pressing need to go back to the roots once again and ask the same question that Karl Marx did:
Who will educate the educators?
RIP is a sad expression. It becomes even sadder when we are obliged to use it. And it’s the saddest thing in the world when we don’t even mean it. But then, the quest for meaning is the most tragic fiasco of our times.
T. S. Eliot comes to mind:
“Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”