The knowledge deficit in the information age – and its consequences

Head in the Cloud - The Power of Knowledge in the Age of GoogleBy Vikas Datta,

Title: Head in the Cloud – The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google; Author: William Poundstone; Publisher: Oneworld Publications/Pan Macmillan; Pages: 320; Price: Rs 599

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, we are told, and some recent political developments may prove it. Diehard Donald Trump supporters said they feared that white Americans were becoming a minority in their own country, while Brexiters were concerned about the rising tide of immigrants on the island. Were their apprehensions genuine or justified?

Not by a long shot. This author asked a national sample of fellow Americans for the percentage of Asians and received an average estimate of 13 per cent — the US Census Bureau says 5.6 as per the 2010 census. Average percentage estimates for Hispanics, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, Muslims and Christians, in other surveys, were 25, 23, 11, 15, and 56, respectively — as against 17, 12.6, 1.7, 1 and 78 actually.

Similarly, immigrants are 13 per cent of the British population, and Muslims 5 per cent, against 24 and 21 per cent estimates of most people (an IPSOS Mori survey, 2014).

Are these positions, or many other similar to them, the outcome of a “politics of fear” resorted by some rather unscrupulous politicians or does the reason lie closer to us? They are actually one — though potentially most worrying — symptom of our growing knowledge deficiency, and that too in an age where technology has made information collection and retrieval nearly instant and effortless, contends American author and columnist William Poundstone in this thought-provoking book.

We, he argues, are increasingly becoming of the opinion that we don’t have to know stuff we can easily find on the internet, which we can access right from where we are with a few swipes and taps, with no thought about its credibility or provenance.

And then we go on to base out actions and decisions on what we think we know, says Poundstone, and become victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect (which holds that those most lacking in knowledge and skill are the least to appreciate this fact, or for that matter, to be even aware of it).

This effect, as we learn, was devised by Cornell psychology professor David Dunning and his graduate student Justin Kruger in the late 1990s, inspired after the former read about bank-robber, who showed up at premises in broad daylight and face uncovered. Arrested the same night, he expressed incredulity at his identification, telling police he had applied lemon juice to his face to make him “invisible”, knowing that it is used for writing secret messages.

Besides this, Poundstone uses a Hollywood party and two films’s premises to show a culture which doesn’t care about facts is “not Hollywood” but the “twenty-first century” as he kicks off his investigation into the worth of knowledge “in the golden age of rational ignorance where more people know who Khloe Kardashian is than who Rene Descartes was”, and everything “can be easily looked up”.

Primarily depending on analysing original surveys of the public’s knowledge in key areas of knowledge from science to history and sports to sex, Poundstone’s divides his investigations and findings into three parts, which focus (with some overlap) on three themes.

First, he shows us that the internet does not make us stupid, but much less aware of what we don’t know, and such “incomplete knowledge creates distorted mental maps of the world” which, in turn, affect choices, behaviour and opinion. He then displays how ability to know answers to so-called “trivia questions” across a wide spectrum correlates with a higher income, better health, happiness and other indexes of a successful life. He though repeatedly emphasises that correlation does not necessarily imply cause, but the connections should not be ignored.

Finally, he outlines how contemporary media can be used to stay informed, but most importantly, how democratic polities “can make wise choices despite low-information voters”.

Poundstone’s book, despite the hilarious levels of dumbness it showcases, is actually a wake-up call to us to not allow our devices to take over, to the extent we forgo thinking for ourselves. It also shows how basic knowledge and cultural literacy — the sort less enlightened parents, teachers and peers dismiss as “irrelevant” to academic and career goals, ranks besides eternal vigilance as the best guarantee of our liberty and rights.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at—IANS

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  1. Dear Mr.Vikas,
    Salam & good Morning to you, your friends & Associates.

    This morning I read that UK PM declared that She will be guided by ALMIGHTY GOD if she votes for Exit from Europe.
    Do we ever look at our own selves that we are living in deficit
    from young to old age. Yet we are oblivious.
    The Academic adore the success & cheer with certificate awards,
    the Film Stars in paramount glee with the black doll award & live
    in ecstasy & drown in wine & ecstasy & immoral activities as most human do.. most of us are sinners.
    The deficit: ALLAH the ALMIGHTY who not only in Islamic Scriptures & in vedic Teaching : Warned us oh Human : ” I thy Supreme Creator took the oath that you will glorify & submit to ME alone , the
    purpose of MY Creation is to submit to ME & glorify ME & none else , once you believe in ME & follow my Scriptures & my Holy prophets , live with purity of mind, love the fellow being.
    Know that this life is a temporary life to test your piety”
    Get your result in the next permanent life & eternal living with the
    Diploma of hell & Paradise”
    Yet except very few we spent childhood in sins of joy, some changes in later life”
    But India now live in complete deficit. The joy of unity & living & loving gradually rusting away, Muslim Scholars including Dr.Zakir is threatened to be defamed in India under made up charges created by Bangladesh Hasina & adopted & enacted by Modi Govt.
    The Chutti walas Hindus threatened Muslims & Christians to be alert to be wiped out in India by next few years.
    Therefore this Religious, cultural, social deficit is needed to be looked at than all other economical & political deposit & deficit for life is ephemeral & all going to the propinquity of their last breath along with this universe. This universe will certainly meet its Big crunch & Glorified ALLAH will create a New Earth & new permanent Universe & revive all to appear on the day of judgement.
    So let us all be aware of what deficit we incur for ignoring the Supre me LORD of the day of judgement.
    Thank You.


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