The Changing Idea of ‘Knowledge’

by Tara* Kaushal

Thoughts on the breath and depth of knowledge in the information age.

Last year, I finally completed my Master's in Literature. I'd started way back in 2006 but, midway, I became the editor of a magazine, and I never found the time to take my second-year exams. Not that I had much time when the exams dawned in April, my last chance to retain my (great) first-year score. Perhaps I shouldn't be admitting this but, considering I read the syllabus four days before they started, I did an MA-by-Wiki and by watching the movies made on the books I should have read.

Finish I did, and fabulously. And, while part of me is proud of my genius and is jumping for joy at having worked the system, this has also been bothering the jigyasu* in me no end. While I recognise awareness is not held in degrees or determined by exams, I wonder what knowledge, general and specific, means today.

GK: Who's To Say?

It brings me to a nugget of an idea that has stayed with me for years from, of all things, Bridget Jones's Diary (probably book). Bridget justifies not knowing a piece of common information by presenting a counterpoint—when there is so much information available to us, what is ‘general knowledge' anymore? I am reminded of this often: at a random get-together just the other day, two friends of mine met for the first time. X, an activist, started raging against Monsanto.
“What's Monsanto?” asked Y-the-fashion-writer.
“You don't know Monsanto?!” he replied aghast. It was a bit tense and judgemental, but the evening moved on.
Later that night, he decided to show us a video that he had recently chanced upon on YouTube. It was a homemade vid of a white girl rapping. “It's so cool,” X said awestruck, “the way she's talking-singing so fast…”
“Erm, yeah, that's what rap is,” said Y, “and this is not even good!”
And he said (I kid you not): “Rap?! What's that?”

In line with the criticisms of IQ tests, one must ask who determines general knowledge? What is relevant to whom? Today, when ‘do research' means ‘Google it', when we're bombarded with more information than we ever have been before, when our short-term memories are suffering from the lack of micro-moments, where does the Lowest Common Denominator of information lie?

The Generation Gap

I'm 32, and I'm a digital immigrant who's an easy Internet (if not technology) user. I've been teaching post graduate students of mass media for seven years—when I started out, the students were three-ish years younger than me, now they're about 10.

It's been interesting to note how much more we know today about the Ice Bucket Challenge and the Kim-Kayne wedding than we do about boring ol' things like farmer suicides, electricity and education. While entertaining lifestyle news has always been a glittery lure away from ‘serious' issues, today, (instead of being relegated to P3 of your national newspaper, as it used to) in ‘trending' it tends to obliterate the less-glam issues. And there's a certain generation that gets all its news from peer interests and recommendations online…

There's also a lack of historicism that pervades this information age (gosh, I'm starting to sound old). As this New York Times piece pointed out, the realms of Internet space being dedicated to Michelle Obama's “bold”, “feminist”, “revolutionary” headscarf-free attire in Saudi Arabia recently was a waste of our collective praise—it had been done by many female dignitaries before. But the current is too engaging to bother with the past, and other mundane things like history, research and fact…

And what is fact? Images speak louder than words, and between Photoshop and self-serving representations there's a whole lot of misinformation that's doing the rounds (read this article on memes and this interesting UK report on trust and the Internet). I can't tell the students enough to verify all the information they get from the Internet and seek out ‘authoritative' sources.

My broad observation: in the age of smartphones, it seems that the breath of our knowledge is a lot more than it was in previous generations (though it may not overlap the way it used to). We know a little about a lot of things, and a lot about very few. And you know what they say about a Jack of all trades.

Living in a Bubble

Apart from the lure of the trending, social media has the potential to exacerbate our knowledge silos. Now, most people engage online with people similar to them in some way, or those they admire—all my close friends are liberal, educated, feminist, thinking people. And though I have a large online circle, these are the people I actually follow, those whose ideas I am engaging with (too much God-religion; any right-wing-ism, racism, anti-Semitism, Muslim-bashing; supporting guns; being homophobic… I'll unfriend/unfollow you straightaway).

If we made the mistake of only looking at our immediate friends' ideas, article-suggestions and knowledge as representative, we would all be living in our own respective rabbit holes, deeply disconnected from others with other types of worldviews who we encounter in daily life. (My feed is full of cute kitten videos, in case you're wondering.)

My answer to these current affairs issues is simple: read the newspaper. I read three actually, India's most popular dailies. This is a quick and easy way to keep you on a somewhat common ground, so to speak, connected with what's happening, ere you lose yourself in the worlds of 3QD (yes, first), The New Yorker and GQ, Rushdie, Buzzfeed and kitten videos, or whatever else floats your boat.


While the Internet enables plagiarism and cheating like never before, one of its greatest boons is the endless amount of inspiration it can provide, and the potential for seamless collaborations. Creativity grows exponentially if you let it, methinks, and having so much stimulus at ones fingertips keeps your neurons firing. It can make you lazy, if you let it, or very smart. You?

* ­­­A Hindi word that means ‘a seeker of knowledge'.