Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Information Free For All

As a kid growing up in Bombay, it never occurred to me that lightning can strike anyone living in a city. I used to imagine that the city builders normally protected us from such eventualities. It was my firm belief that great scientists, thinkers, and statesmen around the world were incessantly and proactively working towards eradicating diseases and other evils. I never thought that people would even conceive of building things that could wipe out humanity.

All the stories from all the history books consistently portrayed the same heroic picture of the great leaders of the great societiesnever undermining their stature or achievements, and I grew up with a burning desire to emulate them. To me, Edison was a great inventor, not a ruthless businessman or a relentless taskmaster. I always regarded Nehru as a pundit and a statesman, and did not know him to be a dancing Romeo with personal political agendas.

As children we lived in an appropriately sheltered world, filled with noble ideals. Our minds were shielded and protected from corrupt and negative thoughts, left to harness their powers for one purpose only
that of expanding our intellectual horizons. Then was not the time to find out that leaders were also politicians with fallible personalities. Or to learn that all you must do to destroy humanity is learn chemistry well.

Information and knowledge was dispensed via a narrow and safe channel, controlled by people of great integrity whose sole responsibility was to ensure the quality and appropriateness of the information. Yes, there were occasions when that responsibility was undermined or even abused
but then, there was always the option to change the "channel"so to speak. In other words, knowledge and information were institutionalized.

This is not to say that bad things did not happen
but when they did happen, their effect was localized. Only the good and noble aspects of the bad events like World Wars, slavery and partition were related in the school history books, so that unless they happened in one's own backyard, one was not negatively impacted by them.

But now, information is instantaneous and free. In this age, information meant for mature audiences is also available to children in its raw, native form. We (and our children) are simultaneously finding out that the political and corporate leaders entrusted with great responsibilities are in fact undermining them. People are faced with making rushed decisions based on the flood of instant information at their fingertips. The dot-com bubble, the stock market frenzy of the 90's, the recent corporate scandals, and the current global outsourcing initiatives can all be linked to that one single ailment
information overload. Strategies are based on information, numbers, and imitation rather than on ideologies or thoughtfully conceived plans. Results are measured in percentages and days, rather than in terms of impact and values generated and studied over a period of time. In short, information is run amuck. What was supposed to alleviate our problems has become the root cause for irresponsible and unaccountable behaviors from children and leaders alike.

The popularity of MySpace, FaceBook and YouTube has opened up the concept of "user generated content" from the keyboards of the accomplished writers to our computer literate teenagers.

The onus of managing and relaying information has slipped from institutions and rests squarely on the individual
but no one has realized it yet. Instead of taking the printed word or video image at its face value, everyone from leaders, teachers, and parents must find a respectable way of filtering the good from the bad. If censoring was the trusted means to manage information in the old days, mentoring should be the new way.

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