In this article, I do not attempt to evaluate the social media’s impact on our social life or how it affected the way we communicate, or what health and psychological threats these media pose to the mankind. These are no doubt big tickets, but they are not my subject of focus in this article. I would instead want to touch upon the suitability of social media as a knowledge-seeking platform.
One might claim that with the advent of Google and the internet, access to knowledge is now much easier, and the volume of knowledge is greater.
My concern is more about the outcome than the access. Is the ever-growing repository of information on the web making us -as a collective human society- superior scholars compared to pre-internet communities? Internet as the primary medium for seeking knowledge is, to say the least, is problematic and unconvincing.
Simply put, the speed of digesting and processing information in our brain is much slower than the rate of information inflow from the internet that accesses our brain. The result is a “mental dysentery” and complete exhaustion. Valuable input gets out from our mind without proper processing, same as when in the case of dysentery the valuable nutrients get our of digestion system without benefitting our body.
Have you ever wondered why the Qur’an - as the most valuable book to mankind as Muslims believe - which is only 600 pages, yet it took 23 years to gradually take its entire form, slowly, bit by bit, so to facilitate this mental digestion? 1
Entering a keyword and skimming through the first few pages vomited by Google is not a healthy style of a sound knowledge-seeker. Unfortunately, in the age of social media, we often “facebookize” all our behavior. That is: start from the top of the screen and scroll down skimming information at the speed of your mouse or finger-touch, hit like on some posts and let everything else sink into the bin of memory. Our Creator, for a purpose, did not trivialize knowledge-seeking in such a manner.
Patience is a leading trait of a successful knowledge-seeker. Staying connected to the wifi and resisting floods of notifications surely needs patience. You need to take small bites of knowledge, chew it properly and let your brain digest the information, before attempting another bite. Ask yourself questions, interact with the author of information and widen the scope gradually. 2
A more significant challenge with Google is verifying the authenticity of information. We seldom go to the tenth page of Google and assume the first few pages enough to grab an authentic version of whatever we are researching. In the age of thought manipulation, algorithms, manufacturing consents, and alternative-truth, the above assumption is naive and often false. Under dictator regimes, freedom of expression is suppressed by force, however, in the democratic West freedom-of-expression is a sacred tenant, so they allow independent voice but create all kind of mechanisms to bury it amidst tons of other information. The results is that such valuable information become like a needle in the haystack of false and fabricated misinformation. If you judge a youtube video by the number of hits, then I can guarantee that you missed-out some valuable independent voices who do not have that many hits.
Speaking about YouTube. YouTube is a visual medium of information. Books and most HTML pages are a typographic and acoustic medium of information. Without going into much deeper philosophy, I believe the text form of knowledge (which required hearing when read aloud) is more stable and persisting than information that is displayed visually (i.e., video form). The visual display, although has the power to establish truthfulness directly to the unsophisticated (hence the saying ‘seeing is believing’) yet its effect is bound to the geographic, the time and the few people who observed it. You can print an HTML page and keep it for a future no-computer-era, whereas you can not do that with a video which always requires an electronic device powered by electricity. 34
Have you ever wondered how YouTube automatically picks up most attractive images as the cover image of your video? Suppose in your uploaded video to YouTube, there is an only appearance of a female body for a fraction of second, then it is guaranteed that YouTube will promote this image at the cover. Algorithms have been trained up by silicon valley elders (and whoever masters sitting behind them) to behave in that way as a thought-control process. Welcome to the world that combines the best (read worst) of both Huxley and Orwell.
Knowledge can never be exercised, sought and preached in isolation of knowledgeable persons (i.e., scholars). God has never sent down scriptures in the form of books and pamphlets. These scriptures were always associated with messengers and prophets. Internet tries to create a culture of individuals seeking knowledge themselves without a human mentor. Think of MOOCs (i.e., Massive Open Online Courses) as a means to democratize education. I do not deny that they bring some benefits, but it can never replace the role of a physical mentor.
Reducing arts, poets and religious texts into multiple choice questions is an insult to human intellect. How often we “kill” a book by watching its Hollywood version. A tiny slice of the human population who genuinely were able to keep themselves away from the cult of post-photo-then-like-and-retweet, are being deceived into iknowledge-seekers. The matter of fact is that there ain’t anything called iknowledge. Knowledge is always physical books and physical teachers. In this trade, the tortoise wins all the time.
I have always tried to read an ebook from cover to cover (kindle or pdf in retina screen) but never felt the same experience and enjoyment as reading the physical book. The comforts on eyes, the flexibility of annotations and ease of navigations with physical books can hardly be equal in ebooks.
I do not want to leave this article with a Ludditic view throwing away anything technology. I still think YouTube and Google play a significant role in the life cycle of knowledge seeking as a “secondary” or “supplementary” source, but not primary. Let me give a personal scenario I often use to enhance my knowledge using the internet and YouTube. New York Book Review (not the NY Times book review) is an excellent source of very carefully well-thought book review platform. I often read the online version of their review. Then If I liked the subject, I usually YouTube the author name, and sure enough many books launching video appears and that gives me a pretty much good overview of the book by the author him/her self. If that turns out to be really good, then I go to Amazon and order the book.
Another scenario when the internet is coming handy in your knowledge journey is Audible, an Amazon platform to hear a book read aloud to you. Librivox is a platform crowdsourced to record audiobooks that have no copyright restrictions, i.e., older books - but old is gold! These are really helpful tools for anyone who spends hours in the city traffic commutes every day.
Notes and Bibliographic pointers
I have deliberately kept away from including hyperlinks in this article as I think they are just distractions in the way of proper knowledge seeking. After digesting this article thoroughly, you can always start widening your scope of interest by expanding some research topics further. Here are few pointers.
Quranic verse 17:103 talks about this fact as follows: “(It is) a Qur’an which We have divided (into parts from time to time), in order that thou mightest recite it to men at intervals: We have revealed it by stages.” ↩
The virtue of patience while seeking knowledge can be illustrated in the journey of Moses to seek knowledge from Khidr, as mentioned in the Quran in Sura Kahf (Chapter no. 18) verses from 60 to 82. Indeed, this story is full of lessons for any knowledge-seekers. ↩
Marshall McCluhan talks at length about “Medium is the Message.” He did not live to witness YouTube but has discussed at length classification of learners based on the type of medium, and that how Eastern civilizations excel more on the acoustic form of knowledge-seeking whereas Western cultures are more materialistic and tend to prefer visual patterns of knowledge acquisition. Another author you should try to read is Neil Postman, especially his book “Amusing ourselves to death.” Again, he did not see YouTube, but his comments on television can be reused on much lighter sense on YouTube. ↩
To illustrate the difference between visual vs. textual content and the influence of both on the progress of human civilization, consider two events at the time of Moses: the split of the sea and the Torah. The first is a visual form and the second is textual. No one doubts that the text has much more and longer lasting effect than the split of the sea, which was very powerful but only at that location and at that time. ↩