East West

Cognitive fragmentation in the 21st century


Kamal Abdul Malik

August 19, 2022

My relatives in Egypt call me “Doctor” (Fatah al-Dal).

During a visit to my village in the Nile Delta, I was staying with my relatives and their neighbor heard them calling me “Doctor.” She came to us with her sick children and asked me to diagnose them and prescribe medicines for them.

I smiled at her and said that I am a doctor of literature and not a doctor who specializes in diagnosing diseases. She answered me disapprovingly: (God! Isn't it all about you, Doctor?).

Yes, dear madam;

“It is all a sign,” but we are now in the 21st century;

Knowledge is not a single entity.

This is the century of cognitive fragmentation, micro-specialization, and fragmented knowledge.

I am a Doctor of Arts and a type of knowledge called the Humanities.

I am not a specialist in any other field of knowledge.

And you, our good neighbour, you may not be aware of this but your concept of knowledge goes back centuries and applies to a man like Abu Ali Ibn Sina who was a philosopher, physician, letter writer, poet, connoisseur of the arts and writing on music.

It may apply to a man of the European Renaissance such as Leonard da Vinci, who was a painter, philosopher, engineer, and inventor.

Those were the times when knowledge was an amalgamation of different fields and types of sciences and arts.

I was thinking about this conversation with the village lady while I was discussing with some friends in Cairo the thought-provoking book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari.

The book is a mixture of knowledge drawn from history, archeology, zoology, history of religions, medicine, artificial intelligence, etc.

We read in the book that the 21st century will bring changes and challenges that no human has ever faced.

Globalization and technological innovations are changing the structures of societies around the world - and changes are happening fast.

If people do not face these challenges and do not cooperate in shaping the future, the jobs of several classes of workers will be “automated.” Automation is an expression of the English word automation, and some people may lose their ability to make their own decisions.

In the book, Harari highlights the biggest challenges of the modern world and offers advice on understanding and surmounting such transitional times.

Did you know, for example, that algorithms like Netflix movie recommendations assume that you lack confidence in your judgment, and that you need guidance in choosing movies?

Did you know that the major transformations of automation in the 21st century will threaten human jobs in every industry?

The book notes that parallel revolutions in information technology and biotechnology are changing societies by making technology so complex that most people cannot understand it and know how machines are changing the labor market and the impact of algorithms on the way they think, shop and vote in elections.

But the most dangerous shift appears in the possibilities now available to humans to change their bodies. Whereas previous innovations changed the outside world - for example, by building dams - new technology is now being developed to change people's internal worlds, such as inserting a pacemaker into the human chest or Slow down the aging process through bioengineering.

An interesting book that mixes knowledge gleaned from various sciences and reminds me of the good neighbor and her sick children and her affirmation that knowledge is an indivisible whole.

• If people do not face challenges and do not cooperate in shaping the future, the jobs of several groups will be “automated” and some people may lose their ability to make their own decisions.

Visiting Scholar at Harvard University

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