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Eyes wide open: knowledge for the common good

Professor Nico Stehr, the Karl Mannheim Professor of Cultural Studies at the Zeppelin University in Germany remarked on the first day of the Masters of Social Innovation program that “most of our lives are spent half-asleep”. It jolted me awake given the fog of jetlag that was floating around in the corners of my brain.

The focus of our discussion was ‘knowledge’ and how knowledge differed from ‘information’. It is well acknowledged that those living in the Western world have more access to information than at any other time in history. But does this information give us knowledge? Or does this information keep us half-asleep?

As we travelled through Denmark celebrations were underway for the 200th birthday of the Danish philosopher/theologian Soren Kirkegaard. One of his many observations was that “the present age is an age of publicity, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens but still there is instant publicity” (amazing how relevant this is to the current vacuous policy debate and politics in Australia). Anticipating the onset of the information age and media bias, Kirkegaard was concerned about the power of the press to foment and form public opinion, and in the process relieve us of the need to think matters through on our own.

Undoubtedly the type of information we receive affects our assumption that we are ‘knowledgeable’. The problem is however when consumption of ‘information’ collected to support a particular worldview is taken as ‘knowledge’ without ever waking up to its particular interests and political commitments. Billboards, television, news reports (that are more or less with a few exceptions really just ‘infotainment’), tabloids, advertisements – the list goes on – constantly bombard us with ‘information’ that many then take as ‘knowledge’.

‘Knowledge’, rather than information, appears in the Western world to be at a premium, especially when it comes to critically assessing the veracity of the information we choose to allow to shape our worldviews. Accumulating ‘knowledge’ however seems so much harder than accessing information. We can receive and accumulate information half-asleep as most of us do every day.

But ‘knowledge’ requires a wakefulness that takes us from unconscious receivers of information to a more critically reflective state of consciousness that requires the deliberate act of thinking and reflecting on the information we receive, and developing a clear set of building blocks for a worldview. It’s a bit like ‘living deliberately’ – eyes wide open – trying to consciously look, listen and learn. It seems that the noise of information today is designed to ensure we don’t do precisely that. Receive passively. Accept the status quo. Remain half asleep.

Perhaps it is time to wake up to ‘knowledge for the common good’ – not information for vested interests that clearly in the western world appear to be free market capitalism and all the bits that seem to attach to this world-view. In the face of the enormous challenges (what are called ‘grand challenges’ in Europe) ranging from climate change to ageing societies, financial crisis, poverty, social exclusion, migration, the seeking of asylum and social conflicts – it appears more urgent than ever for new streams of ‘information’ to be distributed as widely as possible that shake people in the Western world awake and encourage us all to search for knowledge for the common good. This may even put some shock-jock radio presenters and tabloid media commentators out of a job (which wouldn’t be a bad thing)! After all they have a vested interest in keeping us all half-asleep.

If we are to live our lives wide awake to the world in which we live and the challenges we all face, we need to accumulate more knowledge than information – knowledge capable of becoming action, instigating new social practices and behaviors that address inequities and slow down the destruction of the lives of so many today, and potentially even more in the future.

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