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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Information Age

The Information Challenge
Dr. Aliyu Tilde

This is a chat, not a discourse. Haba. “The soul,” a poet once said, “gets tired with lengthy vocation; so, ease its fatigue with joke.”
Let us take a break from politics and talk about something we share with everyone, everywhere, every time. Information. We have not set limits to what we mean by information. Rather, we took liberty in extending its definition to cover the entire domain of exchangeable ideas of all sorts that could be processed by the human brain.
It is widely held that we are living in a post-industrial era. It means that what defines the power of individuals, community and nations today is information, its amount, quality and application. I like hearing that because if we were not, for so many reasons, not able to partake in industrialization, we can partake in information. After all, the most essential infrastructure in information is the brain, something which each of us is sufficiently endowed with.
But in spite of the ubiquity of our brain cells, unless we change our attitude to information, we may not be able to participate in its era, just as we failed to meaningfully participate in the industrial. The final part of our discussion today will therefore be critical of our attitude regarding information.
Our link with information is generic and goes back to Adam. Though mankind cannot claim to have monopoly over intelligence, we stand alone among living things as far as speech is concerned. This is the ability to pass to others, in form of voice, information, what we think or understand about the goings in our environment. Successive civilizations have advanced speech to the level of record that gives our ideas a more permanent form for wider circulation and retrieval.
What we are saying here is that other organisms may have the sense of hearing, sight, and intelligence. We have seen that expressed in various forms, like when the wolf cries; when it protects and feeds its young; when it pursues its prey; or when it locates its shelter. More amazing manifestations of intelligence can be found among smaller creatures like bees, ants, reptiles, fish, and so on. The fundamental difference between these creatures and us is the limitation imposed on them by the absence of speech.
Speech has made it possible for us to share our experience, abstract or real, with other members of our species. The potential of this resource cannot be imagined. A single brain, according to experts, can only be matched by a computer whose size could be at least as big as New York City. Speech, in its various forms, has made it possible to make this ‘human computer’ to network with several others, at various levels of socialization. Two such giant computers are networking when, for example, a husband speaks to his wife; three when the two speak to their child; and four when a taxi driver discusses with three of his passengers about the traffic in Lagos or the cost of living in Abuja. When we watch the network news at nine, possibly millions of brains are engaged in a monologue, each listening to the same thing but with different perception and reaction. You can imagine how many ‘human computers’ are interlinked when we gather around our world receivers to learn where the first bomb was dropped in Iraq in 1989. What size would have been required to install the five billion ‘human computers’, each demanding a space not less than New York City?
In addition to marvelling at the ingenuity in our creation, we can more importantly contemplate on the benefit which each of us derives from our social interaction. One thing with the human brain is its ability to absorb what is in other brains through receiving and processing their wave and other outputs. We listen to the other person speak. He is telling us what he knows. He is empowering us, because we can keep it in our brain or elsewhere as a record for immediate or future use in a way that could affect our lives, for good or for bad. As we interact through speech, we are educating one another by exchanging information, understanding better the way situations are and what is going on in the minds of other people. We therefore share their experience through their narration though we might not have witnessed the events when they happened. That is how children learn their mother tongue; how the teacher imparts knowledge to his pupils; and how the artisan trains his apprentice.
Our wealth as well as our worth, therefore, is practically related to the extent to which we interact with others. Information is the essence of that interaction. The smaller our circle of interaction – or say, exposure – the smaller the quantity of information at our disposal, hence, smaller also is the benefits we could receive from or give to our societies. A boy growing in a rural area, for example, can boast of resilience to adversity and other similar qualities that he learnt from his harsh environment. But he can never match the city dweller in terms of exposure unless he read books and come out of his enclave to interact with thousands of people in the city. There he comes across many faces, visit many places, witness many events and undergo many exciting and depressing experiences. From each of these he learns one thing or the other, increasing the capacity of his brain and the data it contains.
If the reader has followed our argument carefully, he will find it easy to accept the claim that nations, communities and individuals have risen and fallen as a result of information – the amount they have and how they used it. There couldn’t be any asset that is more valuable than information. At any given time, the value of any person lies in the amount of information he has acquired, commonly termed knowledge and experience, and the correct application of that knowledge to circumstances, commonly called wisdom.
Information therefore is what has made the Children of Adam unique. How many empires have been invaded because the news has reached Carthage, Rome or Baghdad that they have so much amounts of gold or silver? How many lives were lost to invaders who know the value of something better than the people that possess it? How many mistakes do we make daily because we haven’t the complete picture of things? How many people live in hunger because they do not know how to utilize their resources? Why are we sometimes uncomfortable when others know the truth we know, and feel far less secure when they know what we do not know? Why is Bush after Saddam? Why the quarrel over sexuality education? The world of mankind is all about information, every inch, every step, every undertaking.
Adam was taught many things by God, among them the information about identities of objects. When angels were asked to name them, they resorted to glorifying God, confessing their ignorance about them and attributing all knowledge to Him. Then Adam was asked to tell them their names. And when he did, behold, his narration became the evidence of God’s knowledge over all matters. With knowledge therefore, Adam and his descendants has been given a potential not given to other creatures.
The tradition followed the chosen Prophets among the progeny of Adam. They were taught by God, given Books and Revelations. They tell us about some future events. That is why we refer to them as Prophets. Their edge over us is in information. Thus they deserve our obedience and command our respect. “These were the men to whom we gave the Book, and Judgement, and Prophethood... Those were the (prophets) who received God’s guidance; follow the guidance they receive...” In another place, speaking about His favours on the Holy Prophet, He said, “For God has sent down to thee the book and the wisdom and taught thee what thou knewest not (before): and great is the Grace of God on thee.”
Now we can understand why among the progenies of Adam some are advanced technologically. They have invested in information – knowledge and wisdom – since time immemorial. They have always dominated the world for their ability to enquire, to learn and to apply their knowledge to their advantage. When they set out to conquer, they will sponsor explorations from which they learn about the people they intend to conquer – their habits, art, taste, government, and so on. With this information they will deduce when and where to strike in order to overcome them easily.
We can also understand why some have remained backward, in any given world order. They have failed to imbibe, dignify and invest in information. Few of them care to learn, the majority is preoccupied with pleasures of eating, sex and sleep. They have the barest information about themselves and almost nothing but contempt about others. As they sleep, others are busy, learning, researching and gathering information in databanks and using it to improve on their condition of living and maintain a constant step ahead of others.
Perhaps our lives, as individuals and as a nation, will begin to change whenever we decide to pay attention to the greatest asset we could have, when we change our attitude towards information, its contents, tools and environment. We will then realize that with every paragraph we read about our specialty or area of interest we are adding something to our human capital, giving us another chance to earn more whenever we decide to use it or the opportunity of doing so presents itself. With every minute we think, ideas will flow, solving a problem confronting us. With every child we teach, we will be taking our community and nation closer to where others stand today.
On the other hand, what progress do we hope to make as individuals when as graduates we have not tried to buy a new book in the past ten or twenty years? How shameful is it for one of us to confess that he finds it difficult to read even a paragraph? How do we expect to have any good government when majority of our administrators hardly find time to read and understand memos or contract documents, instead, they are just interested in the final figure and the kickback they will receive therefrom?
That is why we care not, especially here in the North, about newspapers or establishing them. We just think we will continue to hold on to power without controlling information, without excelling in knowledge and without inventing wisdom. Many of our children are spending six years in public schools without knowing how to write their names, and the conscience of the leadership is hardly pricked enough to generate a genuine desire for change. We will assemble over a cup of tea at Arewa House, time without number, but ignorance remains in full control. Poverty is the price our people are paying for our contempt for knowledge and disregard to information generally.
This explains why power belongs to the ignorant. I remember meeting one of our political leaders who was trying to resuscitate a paper in 1987. I came for the interview but immediately the editor introduced me as a university lecturer, the publisher retorted at him saying: “Look, we are not ready to allow radicals use our resources to abuse us.” It was not surprising that the paper collapsed again less than two years from its ‘resuscitation.’
If you want to know the extent of our intellectual decay, ask ten of your friends when last any of them walked into a bookshop to buy the latest book about their profession or area of specialty. Ask them when last did they visit a library, borrow a book or donate one to the public. Visit the library and count the percentage of new books there. You will be shocked to learn that the majority of us has never, since graduating from the university, visited any library or bought any new book. We have forgotten what we learnt and failed to acquire another. The libraries also have become museums, in short of new stock for over eighteen years. I was once shocked when while on a visit to one of our state capitals I went out looking for a copy of the 1999 constitution. I could not find it anywhere in the bookshops or in the state library. Throughout that night, I wondered what is it that Nigerians – particularly northerners – hope to become without scholarship, without information in an information era.
The country, but especially the North, complains of falling standard of education and unemployment. Sometimes one wonders what the cry is all about when the children are there in a community ready to learn but dozens of its graduates will be spending hours in the evening gossiping by the roadside. Ten degrees are sitting at any daba, every evening for two or three hours, doing nothing tangible to the society.
In the end, why won’t others come to take control of our resources and even dictate who should be our leaders? We may cry that one tribe has dominated this or that sector. What has the others been doing all along? When they do not care to educate their children, how do they expect to have ACCAs among them to collect their local revenue and VAT? How do they expect that Obasanjo will employ their children to manage the computers of INEC or the ID card project? How then do they expect justice?
The truth must be told that not only in this era, but also ever before, information has always given security, power and prosperity to its possessors. Any individual, group or nation that is not ready to invest in information must be ready to forfeit its rights and privileges and assume the pride of servitude to others.
The gaps in this world are quickly closing. I am afraid that we may not be able to keep pace with the development. The information that might have taken some years to gather in the early part of the twentieth century can now be acquired within minutes or days. Even within Nigeria, political developments are making things difficult for people without any skill or qualification to participate in economy and governance. There is no time to sit down and lament. The little time we have could better be utilized in learning and imparting information to others, and in employing new communication skills and techniques. Telephones, computers and other means of communication should be used to mitigate cost, save energy and create the convenience that will enable us to develop with ease.
While our children would spend their time learning, our adult population must be educated politically and socially through popular publications like newspapers and other media channels that we must establish as a necessity to survival, just as others have done. It is only then we will know our rights and know the machinations of the few that have all along tried to trample on them.
We have a long way to go. Finally, I feel compelled to conclude with what another poet once said, out of frustration with the apathy of his people: “I weaved a fine thread for them, but I broke my spindle when I could not find anyone to use it.”
All the same I hope you enjoyed the chat.

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