Mass Ignorance In The Age Of Cheap Knowledge

As a child in the 1990s, the World Book Encyclopedia and Childcraft series provided me with an escape. In one volume, I could learn about the moon and planets of our solar system, in another, the fate of the Dodo, and other victims of humanity.

One book talked about various festivals around the world like Diwali, which was more familiar as Divali to me. In the Encyclopedia, I would have my first encounter of most of the Caricom nations. I remember having arguments in primary school about Guyana. I would sometimes sneak these books to school to prove a point to classmates.

I will admit, I took those books for granted back then, not properly understanding how much they cost, I would stuff them into my full book bag. Only years later I would learn from others that their families invested thousands of dollars to acquire them, sometimes not even an entire volume.

What this meant, is that back then, the cost of learning new things was high. You either had to come from a well off family or at least one that respected the pursuit of knowledge enough to make the investment. This trend held true as I got older and became increasingly curious about the world around me. What's an atom made of? How do lizards regenerate their tails? What's underneath the northern range? Why does water stick to our skin?

All questions one should be happy to hear a child ask but in the absence of credible literature; a recipe for intellectual frustration. As I grew older and got interested in computers, this would become the norm for me.

In the late 1990s very few adults within my reach understood the workings of a computer beyond turning them on and starting up solitaire. For me on the other hand, it was almost love at first site. I wanted to learn everything about these machines. How can you push keys on a keyboard and see text on a screen? Better yet, how can that text turn into a psychical page?

I needed answers. One thing that sustained me, was the fact that so many youth my age were also into computers. We shared CDs and diskettes with programs, games, images and information freely, if one person discovered something useful or entertaining, you could bet it would spread like wildfire. The good, the bad and the disturbing.

Usually, someone blessed with a dial up connection or access to one, was the main source of this abundance. From inception, the Internet had been about sharing knowledge and that culture migrated well from academics and researches to the children of the 80s and 90s obsessed with the stuff.

By the early 2000s, broadband Internet started to become the norm and all hell broke loose. No longer would I have to wait hours for a video to finish downloading to watch. Now I could stream it! I recall discovering Google Videos not too long before it went away and what seemed like a treasure trove of documentaries, all for free. It's thanks to this site that I learned about the Bosnian War and its origins. That single documentary educated me on just how much power politicians have.

For my void of computer knowledge, I filled it with gigabytes of  books on topics such as Operating Systems, Java and Network Security. Back then, I had no idea what the term copyright meant or much of how legal systems worked for that matter. So the world was mine.

I would just queue a download of any book that seemed interesting to me. At the same time, I was preparing to go out into the working world or tertiary education. I decided to do both, initially choosing IT as my field of study. Unfortunately, despite the GATE program, the cost of books and various other fees was still too much for me to afford so I ended up studying accounting (joy).

The books I had download so many of however, allowed me to still learn some of things I was interested in. Software Development on the whole had also started leaning more to the open side of things so that knowledge was complemented by the increasing amount of blogs, articles and standards published on the open web.

I had been exposed to so much information that by the time I was actually able to afford studying IT, I was bored with how basic and uninspiring the material in front of me was.

Access to knowledge, a thing that through human history has been fiercely guarded by the elite and even demonized by religious leaders, for the first time in recorded human history became cheap. For most of us, access to information of varying quality is just a swipe or gesture away.

I have seen school children tasked with coming up with solutions to a problem whip out their phones and evaluate search results faster than you can open a book and turn to page one. Communities have sprung up on forums, chat rooms and social media with the expressed purpose of sharing information on topics of mutual interest. That ranges from bread making, exercise, nutrition to vehicle maintenance, finance and more. All topics that per-Internet would have been hoarded as "proprietary secrets".

Now information is given away freely as a form of marketing called "content marketing".

On paper this should mean that mankind is progressing and doing well. There should be no wars over resources, race or religion because we have easier access now to the knowledge needed to make wiser decisions, settle our differences and prioritize what's important.

Clearly that's not what's happening.

For some reason, as I write this, some people believe Bill Gates is responsible for the global pandemic. One commentor claims it's part of a plan to reduce the world population by getting rid of all the "stupid" people. In other places, people are trying to convince each other to gargle bleach, some are selling cures for the virus involving silver.

On the more serious side of things, some are using the most feeble of attempts of misinformation to sew the seeds of political unrest and racism. And it has been working.  A video of something upsetting but unrelated placed strategically is enough to trigger a mob of emotional responses online that sometimes seep into real life.

You'd think by now it would be more difficult to fool so many people.

To be honest, I put most of the blame on social media. It did a lot for us by giving people a reason to spend more time on the Internet. However, it eroded a lot of those gains when political agendas, financial gain, scams and nudie pictures became the loudest voices on the major platforms.

So what's the solution?

Difficult to say, but clearly people need to spend more of their time pursuing knowledge and moral enlightenment instead of vices and self indulgence. To repair the damage being done we need to get people to think objectively, cooperatively but most importantly, for themselves.

The question then is; how do you encourage someone to think for themselves without leaving too much of an influence?

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