Instant Access, Unequal Knowledge and Democracy

In a post-truth world, how do ‘facts’ fit in? A sociologist suggests ways to develop critical thinking in our times, through the prism of her discipline

New information and communication technologies have ushered in a world of 24×7 breaking news; Twitter fights; WhatsApp messages; Facebook posts; Instagram. They have broken language barriers and made possible for us to connect and communicate instantly. More people participate in public discourse than ever before. This should have furthered understanding among people, fostered fraternity, and deepened democracy. The story however has unfolded differently.

Instead it has thrown up unprecedented challenges for mutual understanding. A snippet of a conversation that I had with an Uber driver in the last month of 2017 captures the impossibility of a dialogue in a context defined by instant access and unequal knowledge. As I settled down in the car inside Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) where I teach, he first confirmed that I was a ‘Professor’ and then proceeded to ask me whether I knew who the first Prime Minister of the country was. Taken aback I answered, “Nehru.” Anticipating my answer, he said – like TV quiz masters whom both he and I would have been spectators to –“wrong!”  He continued that the erstwhile ruling party had spread this falseness, but this could no longer hold, for “Google” now offers people the truth directly. It was actually Sardar Patel who was the first Prime Minister, he told me. The other piece of “knowledge” that he provided was that Gandhi of the Congress party had got Bhagat Singh, the founder of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) killed. After the initial sense of shock, I tried to counter him with little success. I felt shaken and helpless as I struggled to explain the ways data was uploaded on the Internet. It was with a quiet sense of calm and accomplishment that he witnessed my flustered response. He continued speaking, recounting how he constantly gathers knowledge from the computer.

It is not just that our substantive claims were different. The basis upon which he asserted the claims was fundamentally in variance with mine. For him, knowledge that Google offered was absolute and final. It had authority and expertise. I as a JNU professor had no legitimacy in the new social order. What I spoke therefore was untruth. We did not occupy the same universe of discourse. For a moment I wondered, what if I had agreed with him. Would I then be seen as speaking the “truth”? And would then my authority as a Professor been instantly re-established? Most likely “yes”. For then we would be “on the same side”. It is the source from where the information was gathered or the “side” that one belonged to that decided the validity of a “fact”; not the process by which it had been established.

This experience prompted me to go back to a fundamental distinction in the social sciences between ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ and ‘knowledge about’. The former involves direct familiarity with phenomena, what we ‘experience’; the other involves taking into account the workings of structures, (such as capitalism, the state, patriarchy) abstract formulations that do not necessarily ‘resemble’ what has been directly experienced.

Not too long ago, knowledge by acquaintance (common sense knowledge) meant the information we gathered by ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ from family and the people whom we hung out with. The story is far more complex in a mediatised world. The Uber driver had not picked his knowledge from any kin member. He had used Google on his own democratic ‘free will’ and ‘discovered’ the ‘truth’ about Bhagat Singh.

The problem is that while he has access to such ‘facts’, he may have no access to the ways ‘facts’ are produced; or an understanding that algorithms would feed him with precisely the facts that he is seeking. A sociological understanding in contrast involves much more than ‘acquaintance with’. It includes an empirically confirmable comprehension of the conditions and often-complex processes in which people are caught up without clear awareness of what is going on. For instance, it helps us understand how colonialism, capitalism, class, race, caste, Big Data have structured our individual lives. Their workings are complex and not visible to the naked eye. They are not ‘facts’.

My interactions with schoolteachers, during my stint writing sociology textbooks for National Council of Educational Research and Training, suggest that such an unproblematic idea of ‘facts’ is not missed on educators either. Teachers wanted textbooks to have more ‘facts’, like population growth, details of various Five-Year Plans, listings of social problems, etc.

I could be wrong, but my guess is that there are a couple of reasons for this emphasis on information or tangible ‘facts’. One, students could memorise and reproduce ‘facts’, so teachers could set questions and evaluate answers with little scope for ambiguity or what is termed subjectivity. Two, even our higher educational practice has unfortunately rested on the idea that social science knowledge is a compilation of ‘facts’. The various Tests that are conducted by the University Grants Commission and Union Public Service Commission would bear this out. Our social science training rarely engaged with the manner by which evidence-based facts (historical or contemporary) were arrived at, disputed and even revised. Three, efforts to deal with such ‘theoretical’ issues were seen as ‘elitist’ and unfair to the vast mass of students. Factual information, on the other hand, is seen as user friendly.

It is our tragedy that our dumbed down higher education has ensured that even teachers do not have the educational wherewithal to distinguish between evidence-based findings and banal assertions of ‘nationalist’ pride such as “Narad Muni was like Google”, “Internet was in the Mahabharata”, “Mantras codified the laws of motion”. Nehru can be replaced with a Patel.  There are obvious ideological reasons for displacing Nehru’s name or the regular invocation of ancient India’s marvels.

My concern here, however, is not with this. It is more with the effortless ease with which one ‘fact’ replaces another ‘fact’, or one ‘history’ replaces another. This reflects the hollowing out of our social science education over the decades.  They have been reduced to simply a compilation of unrelated ‘facts’. Not surprisingly students find learning them wearisome. And teachers who are under pressure to have students score high marks (even full marks) in the social sciences desperately seek ‘facts’. They leave out the descriptions that connect the facts and offer ‘knowledge about’ – an understanding into the social, economic and political processes.

It is not surprising therefore that so many of our middle class (so skilled otherwise, as software and IT professionals) have no knowledge of history or any idea of society other than the ‘facts’ they gather from social media posts, like that of the Uber driver. The limits of our language mean the limits of our world. In this world there is nothing to distinguish between the Televised Quiz programmes and social sciences. In these smart and instant times, we find details confusing and dispensable. Buzzwords make sense. We relate emotively; we react to excitable speech the way the scriptwriters expect us to.  Just as we know who the villain is in a film, we ‘know’ who the villain is in any social conflict.

Events in society – whether historical or contemporary – can rarely be explained in terms of the hero-villain trope. History textbooks tell us for instance that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, triggered World War I. It was not the cause. The trigger was mounted against international politics and imperial power’s fight over colonies. Finding that one definitive cause for an event violates basic principles of social science. But we live not just in ‘instant’ times today but also in deeply polarised ones. We always ‘knew’ who the villain was. It is always the ‘other’.

Let us pursue that matter of the trigger a little further. World War I left over 15 million dead and 20 million injured. Unlikely that a war more than a hundred years old, fought in distant lands would be of interest to us. But the facts that over one million Indian troops served overseas; 62,000 died and another 67,000 were wounded are likely to resonate with our current sensibilities. The Public Relations industry would instantly transform the facts to a feel proud, ‘nationalist’ message to be forwarded along with the customary ‘Good morning’ and the inspirational quote for the day (like “Cinderella is proof that a new pair of shoes can change your life”). We are flooded 24×7 with such ‘knowledge’. They have no context. They offer no insight. They are ‘knowledge’ accessories; and increasingly identity accoutrements.

One is not suggesting therefore that we teach principles of social science as in a Graduate class on philosophies of method. What one is wondering is whether we could use concrete events to discuss social science concepts such as ‘colonialism’, ‘gender’ and ‘unintended consequence’. For instance, amidst the deadly COVID-19 Pandemic, Soutik Biswas writes for the BBC about accounts from the Spanish flu, which paints the social context of how the virus spread, and helps us unpack the history of social mistreatment towards women and the marginalised:

“the deadly flu, which slunk in through a ship of returning soldiers that docked in Bombay (now Mumbai) in June 1918 …The disease, according to health inspector JS Turner, came ‘like a thief in the night, its onset rapid and insidious…’ The influenza killed between 17 and 18 million Indians, more than all the casualties in World War One. India bore a considerable burden of death – it lost 6% of its people. More women – relatively undernourished, cooped up in unhygienic and ill-ventilated dwellings, and nursing the sick – died than men”.

Such efforts have been made before. Excellent textbooks have been written. But we fell short for many reasons. One, we did not have the training in social sciences to actually use the books as a resource. Two, we have an Evaluation system that can defeat the best books and teachers. Three, we are unlikely to have a state in the near future who is interested. Four, sensibilities have changed with a deadly combination of banality and hate; much of it amplified by the new media. Therefore, the only way forward is to seize the new media, and create a public awareness of social sciences, its joys and its imperative role for humanism and democracy.

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