In search of informal knowledge


I have been recently lured into reading Jordan Peterson - an impulse borrowing from the local library - though I did not last long. But, I am thankful in a way - it showed me, rhetorically speaking, the principal struggle of this historical moment, and of all moments of change, is the struggle against the oppression of formal knowledge.

If this sounds like yet another battle against the experts, I would make another point: The battle against the experts that our smooth-vowel politicians usually indulge into is only a charade. All they are trying to do is to steal the sentiment of the moment rather than expressing what they really think. If anything, they are on the pulpit preaching against the pulpit, as demagouges had done in the past and will continue do forever. 

But the struggle I speak of is a universal one. Theodore Zeldin had it right - the experts tell common people what to do until the common people speak up and change the conversation. All revolutions are, as late David Graeber liked to say, revolutions in common sense. This is not a battle to establish some universal or timeless ideas. This is a struggle to find expressions of common sense.

It is particularly revealing to me as I grew up with a love of books. That is upbringing - the colonial masters taught us Bengalis that the truth was printed in English language - and I always searched for answers in books. My idea of the world was constructed around them. When I wanted to know something, I bought books. When I wanted to acquire a new capability, I signed up for classes and bought some more more books.

Indeed, the whole scheme is absurd and I know that now. While I can't still let go of my book-collecting habits, I am painfully aware that these are only artefacts of the commercial interests that dominate our lives. These printed paper objects are not objective founts of knowledge, but rather a complex commodity that reflects a producer-consumer relationship.

The printed word is also the keystone of a vast structure of formal knowledge that we live in. It's right down from the government to the school, presented in commercially-produced newspapers and taught at the bureaucratic universities, organised in notifications, forms and information boards. It's central, if analog, to our relationship with Facebook and its cousins, one in which we give our time to get a hormone-induced sensation to a group of financially astute producers who turn our attention into tradeable commodities!

But I would like to believe that we are living in a time of transition, when technologies change and change the ideas with them. This is the time when new conversations are starting and if we cede the initiative, most of us will never have a say. That will make us poorer, but would break the consensus that we live in. Precisely a moment to start a revolution in common sense, so to say!

So where to find the conversations that will bring that about? Perhaps this needs to be found in the internet babble. People complain of the rubbish that comes with this, and the misinformation that is drowning us, but I shall take an optimistic view: This is how the conversations that change the world starts. We may imagine the enlightenment to be one of reason, but historians know that this was an age of cacophony as much as ours. We impose structures of formal knowledge, which we sometimes call the truth, retroactively on the chaos of informal knowledge. 

I am therefore skeptical of the attempts - through experts, through AI whatever - of weeding out 'misinformation'. I put my faith on more voice - enabling more people to speak up, participate and think - rather than less voice, through editing, gatekeeping and organising. Let a thousand ideas bloom, because in that, there is one whih will change the world.








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