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Is the Internet transforming natural knowledge?

Thursday April 08 2021
By Innocent Swai

What makes us human? The only thing which swiftly comes to mind is our thoughts. Humanity is gifted with a highly complex and fascinating brain, which makes it possible not only to acquire and share tacit knowledge but also engage in critical and autonomous thought.

Such ability to think has brought humanity to where we are today: in a knowledgeable world where information and misinformation are created and disseminated with incredible speed with the help of the Internet.

The overuse of Internet is undermining our critical and autonomous thought. Humanity is being trapped into perceiving all the information online as the truth. Misinformation and fake news are affecting our societies negatively. But, more on that soon.

We are in a new age of the Internet which is driven by big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and data mining. Have you watched sci-fi series of Star Trek? It’s an imagined futuristic world in which the borders between the digital world and our world are becoming increasingly blurred. The reality is that we’re moving toward a digital future that is turning what used to be science fiction into reality. What used to Web 2.0 which was collaboration at its best has been transformed into Web 3.0. The latter is known as the Internet of Things (IoT), where intelligent, connected digital gadgets bring the Internet into every aspect of our daily routines.

Through IoT, devices like digital watches, fridges, lighting, speakers and even smartphones equipped with connective capabilities are providing new, easier and more efficient alternatives to our daily routines. However, these connected digital gadgets are more than just helpful, they’re also data-mining tools. These gadgets track user behaviours and share information with other connected gadgets worldwide.

For governments and the big tech corporations like Amazon, Facebook and Google, these massive amounts of data are a gold mine, being used to empower them to know everything about our personalities, networks and behavioural patterns. Such insights help them to design sophisticated new products and services that shape entire societies.

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Knowledge can be information that’s true and reliable provided it’s supported by reasons. As such, knowledge is distinct from mere factual information. For example: imagine you’re looking for a certain office and ask a passerby for directions. They’ve got no more of a clue than you do, but take a guess and tell you to turn left. As it happens, they were correct. They didn’t know where to go, but they were able to give you factually accurate information anyway.

As you can see factual information is enough to lead anyone in the right direction. So how important is knowledge after all? Well, suppose, the same passerby had said right. It’s an obvious wrong guess. Such information wasn’t based on reason, which makes it unreliable.

By contrast, someone with knowledge understands what they’re talking about and can provide good reasons. But, in our digital world, devices collect factual information, but don’t necessarily create new knowledge. Facebook might know what all the links visited by users, without knowing the reason behind their motives. Hence, Facebook gathers information, but not knowledge.

It’s knowledge, not information, that’s crucial for a functioning society. Joint efforts to develop collective tacit knowledge is what will make humanity to survive and thrive. However, sharing reliable knowledge rather than just information is key. In other words, we must think independently and critically.

Unfortunately, our digital culture places less and less emphasis on these very skills and, as a result, our society may well be heading toward an intelligence trap. Go figure!