I would like to offer some points in response to an article written by Prof. Ahmad Murad Merican titled Celebrating the Scribe in All Forms which appeared in the New Sunday Times, dated 15th January 2012.
One of the momentous events that has shaped modern world was the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, the German priest who made the Reformation possible was not working in vacuum. As pointed out by many historians, the massive impact of Luther could be attributed to two reasons: the first is the lack of seriousness on the part of the Roman Catholic Church to stifle the “intellectual revolt” and the second is the encouragement provided by the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. This potent combination of weak authority and empowerment of the masses via the newly created printing press made the distribution of Luther’s tracts (300,000 printed copies) throughout Germany and Europe to become highly efficient. Luther’s reform, simply put, was assisted by the logical technological progress of his time and the rest is history.
Many things can be learnt from this episode when it comes to understanding the power of information and its impact upon society.
Journalism, which is a modern phenomenon, rightfully carries the poster-boy image of the “democratization of information”, and to a certain extent, of knowledge. Almost all intellectuals recognized and heralded the coming of the Information Age in our time. But not all of them viewed it with great joy and relief for they foresaw the great danger that lurks behind this euphoria.
Some labeled it as the Age of Information Explosion in which we are hyper-connected. But a bigger question is we are connected to what? Have we, through this hyper-connectivity, become better communicators? Despite of having plethora of information at our disposal, how efficient have we made use of our cognitive abilities?
Judging from mankind’s track record in resolving problems and creation of unnecessary conflicts in our time, we are indeed in dire straits with respect to coming to terms with this information explosion.
Perhaps a blast from the past could shed some clue on how the ancients saliently negotiate the rightful role of cognition in communication. Our renowned scholar, Tan Sri Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas in his seminal study of Hamzah Fansuri, a Malay Sufi poet of 16th century had traced with acute precision the employment of rightful terms by the classical Malay writer in elucidating things with finesse.
For instance, although words such as “kenal” and “tahu” appear to denote the same meaning, they actually connote significantly different meanings. According to Al-Attas, Hamzah Fansuri consistently employed the word “kenal” to mean gnosis whereas the word “tahu” means knowledge – hence a very subtle distinction between “ilmu pengenalan” and “ilmu pengetahuan”. Such sensitive care and subtlety in grasping the various shades of meaning of a concept by employing the correct choice of words was very much prevalent in those days among all Malay writers and scholars.
In our times, these distinctions are no longer appreciated, especially to the minds of the modern Malays. This signifies the degree of leveling that has occurred in our thoughts through the misappropriation and callous use of language in describing and interpreting the realities that appear before our mind’s eyes.
This uncouth usage and misapplying of terms is one of the signs that characterized the (Dis)Information Age. We have confused information with knowledge, and knowledge and wisdom. If this attitude is not checked and constrained in a thorough manner, it may mutate into another kind of cognitive disease in the form of an “intellectual anxiety”.
Like a lost traveler in the desert who can never quench his thirst by sipping water conjured up by a mirage, we have produced a society that can never be satiated in spite of being fed with tones of information on a daily basis. Jean Braudillard, the celebrated French philosopher once said: “We lived in the world where there is more and more information but less and less meaning”.
A respected environmentalist, Professor David W. Orr, describes one of the characteristic feature of the modern mind is its failure to make a proper distinction between slow and fast knowledge.
He said: “The differences between them could not be more striking: fast knowledge is focused on solving problems, usually by one technological fix or another; slow knowledge has to do with avoiding problems in the first place.”
The (Dis)Information Age indeed heralded a brave new world for all and journalism has such a massive role to play in mediating the (right) discourse between the scholarly authority of academia and the recipient masses.
Journalism as rightly described by Prof. Murad Merican is not a value-free profession. Contemporary times celebrate the rise of “citizen journalism” that vividly thronged all forms of media. If they – the masses, are not given proper training and guidance with regard to negotiating and participating directly or indirectly in journalism, they could sow more seeds of confusion that could breed intellectual malignant within the society in which everything must be leveled on the expense of substance over the form.
A scribe should realize at all times that the pen is mightier than the sword and with such might, accountability comes with a great price tag as well.
Wan Ahmad Fayhsal bin Wan Ahmad Kamal is the Research Fellow of the Himpunan Keilmuan Muslim (HAKIM).