January 19, 2020


Composed by Essa Malik
Composed by Essa Malik

The advent of radio and TV in the 20th century and the rapid expansion of the internet and social media in the first two decades of the 21st century have shaped a new phenomenon. Perhaps this can be best described by omitting the letter ‘k’ from the spelling of ‘knowledge’. Phonetically, the two can be made distinct by continuing to use the conventional pronunciation of ‘Knowledge’, while using the pronunciation of the word ‘now’ for the new species of ‘Nowledge’.

Original Knowledge is a body of distilled information. For most of human history this was primarily preserved in print, particularly in paper books. Knowledge is seamless in time and has been added to over decades and eras. Slow, gradual and incremental, it has been verified and cross-checked for authenticity by extensive research. It leaves room for acceptance of contrary, contradictory or challenging counter-theses. And it is respectful of variance and diversity in sources of information and interpretation. It is calm and attentive; willing to listen, to be sceptical and admitting to self-doubt.

Knowledge is content in its own validity, yet conscious of its vulnerability to change in the light of new knowledge. Personified by humility, Knowledge is concerned only with the search for truth; even if only one, or a handful, or just a hundred others share in this search. Knowledge is sober and solemn. It is about sanctity for proven facts, wide reading, deep reflection and writing.

Mature and resonant, Knowledge is seasoned and stored like the finest wine. Slow and steady of gait, Knowledge has the grit of a long-distance marathon runner. It is understated yet self-assured. It is confident about substance and assertions. Over the past 150 years, in addition to books, Knowledge has also been well-served by some newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, cinema — especially documentary cinema — and other informative, descriptive material. Holistic in scope, Knowledge encompasses the past, the present and the trends that may determine the future.

Where ‘Knowledge’ is humble, sober, insightful and concerned with a search for truth, ‘Nowledge’ is instant, opinionated, unverifi ed, speculative and only interested in going viral

Nowledge contrasts sharply with Knowledge in multiple dimensions. Virtually born with electronic media and catalysed by digital technology and social media, Nowledge is instant, daily, recent and transient — as in the 24/7 news cycle. Immersed in immediacy and the moment, this step-sibling has thrived with mobile media through computerised, chip-based laptops, tablets, cell phones and smartphones.

The internet and digitisation have enabled unprecedented storage and push-button dissemination of Knowledge. Yet, Nowledge — rather than Knowledge — and the internet are far more synonymous because of the mass popularity of platforms such as Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp and others. Devices such as Kindle provide on-screen books which epitomise Knowledge. So it can be said that, on the internet, Knowledge and Nowledge converge. But the moment-to-moment, simulative, sensory impact of Nowledge, and the broad nature of the internet, make Nowledge the dominant dimension of the World Wide Web — compared to the quiet, concentrated richness and sustained character of Knowledge.

Nowledge reproduces Knowledge, substantively but also superficially. The basic nature of Nowledge and its exchanges makes it cursory and fleeting, and sometimes unethical — as in the practice of cut-and-paste plagiarism.

Instant access often lacks insight. The prime focus of Nowledge is on raw data — including unverified data, rumours, fake news, disinformation, misinformation, presumption, defamation and sensation. While Knowledge includes proven, scientific evidence, Nowledge is abundantly speculative. Casting aspersions on character, Nowledge floats innuendos and suspicions. These are massaged into gossip, dressed up in costumes which, on the basis of mere visibility, claim credibility. Before fictive ‘facts’ are exposed as fabrications, Nowledge has successfully implanted acceptance of falsehoods — so firmly, that evidence of the original content being fake fails to reject the falsehood. Nowledge gets a particularly invidious dimension because of its capacity to morph, to superimpose faces on to bodies to which they do not belong, to transpose voices and words from one person to another person.

The revelations, in 2013, of secret global surveillance by the US National Security Agency — by the courageous Edward Snowden — underline how ‘Nowledge’ has converted the basic goodness of Knowledge and the initial benevolence of the internet into exploitative, inimical malevolence.

Without authentication, ‘Nowledge’ is circulated instantly and revels in going viral. Obsessed by numbers, the more people receive a message, the more ‘Nowledge’ claims legitimacy, regardless of veracity. It is fragmented, opinionated and impatient.

Without authentication, Nowledge is circulated instantly and revels in going viral. Obsessed by numbers, the more people receive a message, the more Nowledge claims legitimacy, regardless of veracity. It is fragmented, opinionated and impatient. In etiquette, Nowledge can be loud, curt, nasty, dismissive and abusive. Nowledge brims with tittle-tattle, mumbles, murmurs and babble. Although Nowledge may also require reading (mostly on electronic screens) it is primarily verbal and oral, and image- and icon-based.

Nowledge is a 100-metre dash; a fast, fevered sprint. It has a short attention span compared to the sustained focus of Knowledge. Marked by distraction, Nowledge threatens to reduce mass reading of paper books. Being noisy, bumptious and even aggressively insistent, Nowledge makes opinion as important — if not more notable — than hard facts and correct information. Tweets by US President Trump perhaps best symbolise this particular feature.

Obliquely, if not directly, Nowledge seems to influence many decisions at the highest level. Over the past three decades, during meetings with heads of states, heads of governments and other important public officeholders, one has noted with concern that opposite to their desk is a switched-on TV set. Such continuous distraction reduces single-minded concentration. Perhaps this partly explains the poor and erroneous decisions taken by some such individuals. Instead of using the depth of Knowledge to take sound decisions, the unceasing exposure to Nowledge leads to rapidly reactive, defective and even disastrous actions.

Even as Knowledge grows exponentially to benefit people’s lives in wondrous ways, an ambivalence of this growth is evident in information entropy. This signals the severe stress that humanity faces in coping with enormous volumes of new data produced every minute in every sphere. In comparative terms, one seeks solace in the hope that Knowledge is the ultimate tortoise that will outpace the hare of Nowledge.

The writer is the author of, among other books, Pakistan: Unique Origins; Unique Destiny?, and a former senator and federal minister of Pakistan

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 19th, 2020