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.
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
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. 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
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