here is an emerging consensus in many societies today on a perceived need to create a knowledge society that could pave the way for a knowledge economy.
In a nutshell, this perspective assumes that modern technology could underpin all sorts of human activities such as production of goods and services, commercial transactions, both within and across countries, solving various problems that human societies face, etc. Diverse applications of modern technology are evident to varying degrees in the developed world as well as in newly industrializing countries in Asia and elsewhere. Many indicators are used to measure the extent to which societies have adopted modern technology. These include the extent of internet penetration, use of computers and mobile devices, use of ICT for service delivery and technology based industrial production. Yet, modern technology hardly touches deeper societal issues that, if at all seem to become even more acute by the day. These include persisting and emerging conflicts, growing public health threats, global warming, intensifying natural disasters, increasing inequality, pervasive environmental pollution and gradual depletion of natural resources such as fossil fuel and water.
There are no quick-fix technological solutions to these wide-ranging problems. Yet, these problems cannot be ignored as they threaten the survival and the quality of life of several billion people across the world. This is understandable because much of modern technology that many people talk about relates to processing, sharing and use of information. The resulting glut of information has already overwhelmed a large proportion of people in the so-called knowledge societies. In the face of the rapid circulation of all sorts of information and symbolic products in huge volumes, most people feel almost totally powerless and voiceless as their voices and opinions get easily drowned in a sea of sounds, images, symbols and numbers. Meanwhile, several people have become billionaires by tapping into the enormous pool of money that circulates around the world. They only have to provide some internet-based service to millions of potential consumers scattered across the globe. For instance, a popular song may be downloaded by millions of enthusiasts making the artiste involved a millionaire in an instant. Moreover, those who are engaged in various professional activities connected with the so-called knowledge economy such as IT specialists earn much more than people engaged in conventional occupations.
Such a new division of labour has also contributed to significant income inequalities in modern societies.
Information technology revolution has already had a far reaching impact on economies and cultures around the world. Yet, it cannot fundamentally alter the material basis of human life. Production and distribution of basic goods and services depend on human labour, both skilled and unskilled, as well as natural resources such as land, water and minerals. Information technology has no doubt altered the way human societies are organized to facilitate the production and distribution of goods and services. But, the increasing volume of goods and services produced, hauled across the world and consumed by an ever increasing proportion of the world population, while satisfying the growing demand, is also creating unprecedented problems in many countries such as an upsurge in non-communicable diseases, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources, and wide income disparities. Future prospects of many countries and the well-being of the world population would no doubt depend on whether we find reasonable solutions to these problems. This is where critical and creative thinking and innovative ideas become critically important. However, such thinking is unlikely to come from narrow and superficial education that is promoted by both governments and businesses today. The emergent educational and media landscape in many countries is not very helpful with regard to the above either.
Recent changes in the education sector and the media landscape everywhere do not help promote any deeper reflections on the changing world around us. As for education, most people only recognize its instrumental value. In other words, it has simply become a means to an end. For well established universities in the world, what matters most is the increasing enrollment of fee-paying local and foreign students so they can continue to expand their education business. For governments, what matters most is their reduced commitment to allocate public funds for higher education so that they can reduce their widening budget deficits. For parents and prospective students, what is important is their ability to secure marketable educational certificates. So, it is the corporate employers who largely determine what courses students follow. So much so today it is business studies, commerce, finance, engineering, IT, medical, travel and tourism, etc. that dominate most of the universities in all parts of the world.
It is not difficult to imagine what sort of a narrowly focused training that the undergraduates in general undergo at the universities in most countries today. In other words, most university students today do not receive a broad-based education and therefore often have no capacity to critically analyse the complex world around them. The situation is not any better at lower levels of education within the school system. Though some educationists have had a significant influence in shaping the curricular in many countries including Sri Lanka, implementation of policy has fallen far short of expectations.
Meanwhile, educational authorities, leaders as well as most parents want one thing and that is examination success. In the rat race much of the substance of education is lost and most school leavers end up learning little or nothing by way of basic learning skills, life skills, general knowledge and a broader world view. Yet, some of them do well in terms of professional advancement and become business executives, lawyers, doctors, bureaucrats, etc. These professionals in turn become role models for many children. Successful people make money and adopt lifestyles that are often bad for their own health and well-being and the wider natural environment. Relentless expansion of consumption by the affluent classes and increasing desire for the same on the part of lower income groups facilitate rural-urban and international migration leading to unsustainable growth of cities everywhere and related problems. Yet, professional people with tertiary educational qualifications do not seem to be any smarter than their lowly educated brethren in their ability to understand the negative impacts of their own behaviour on the wider society. They are no doubt specialists in their own narrow fields but do not seem to have gained any wisdom from their often expensive education.
In modern societies, media institutions have the potential to extend the process of institutionalized education by providing an arena for serious public discussion and dissemination of information on important matters based on diverse ideas and even scientific research. In countries where the media institutions are in the hands of independent, professional journalists, such public discussions take place in a manner that allows free expression of diverse ideas and presentation of factual information without undue bias.
The general public could often rely on independent media institutions to remain well informed. So, even where educational institutions fail in their mission to provide the younger generations with a well-rounded education, media institutions can fill the gap left by the education system to a significant degree. Yet, in countries like Sri Lanka, both the education system as well as the media institutions do not live up to the high expectations as regards their contribution to creating an enlightened public.
We may introduce technology into the school curriculum to prepare our younger generations for a future knowledge society where youngsters will spend much of their time with computers and mobile gadgets but it is doubtful whether they will have the capacity to understand the world around them in any meaningful way. Denied of a well-rounded education in the arts and the sciences, many of them are likely to get lost in a sea of information hurling around them without being able to make sense of the sounds, images, numbers and symbols that swirl around them.