Knowledge, information and truth – The Manila Times

Read this in The Manila Times digital edition.
THE intellect, maintained Thomas Aquinas, together with many medieval philosophers, is ordained towards the truth. It relentlessly seeks out the truth. In ancient times, this often meant that insights of sages, and so manuscripts and scrolls were the priceless sources of truth, notwithstanding the fact that it was apparent to the studious that very often, the wise contradicted each other.
And I believe that it was precisely this realization that made the quest more challenging, more engaging and truly endless.
In less metaphysical times like ours, “information” and “data” are the sought-after commodities. Data banks are as closely guarded as are the banks with which we are more familiar, and information theft is proscribed and punished by many laws — not any less severe than the penalties for the theft of property. One phenomenon of our days is the “commodification” of information. Data constitute a commodity that can be bought, sold, exchanged. Ironically, it is the drive to know — that freedom of inquiry that has spurred the greatest achievements of the human mind — that has resulted in this ambivalent phenomenon: the commerce in information and data.
Any researcher who turns to online sources — only a few years ago unavailable to even the most diligent — will soon find that any promising source demands enrollment or registration and a corresponding fee. It can be frustrating, as I have been frustrated a number of times to experience that information is held captive by commerce and its availability governed by the rules of trade! What entrepreneurs have done is to sequester the more interesting, more important and more prestigious output of scholars and researchers into databases, access to which can be gained by clients only for a fee, and very often, a steep one. Obviously this only deepens the already perilous social and economic divide. Only researchers heavily funded by corporations, institutions and persons with a personal stake in the output of research can gain access to these treasuries.
This is what gives information and data technologists with the savvy to break down data barriers some kind of a heroic glow. These include those who make books and scholarly articles available for nothing. There obviously arise questions in respect to intellectual property, but when it is remembered that copyright, in particular, was meant to encourage scholars and men and women of letters to write, then the returns from “hard copies” sold or even those vended in “digital format” should be sufficient. In fact, more rewarding is the realization that their books and articles are so sought after that they are readily available on the web. In fact, the severity of intellectual property laws coupled with the economic demands of book publishers and authors are what drive “data-liberators” to penetrate protective barriers to allow free access.
Of late there has been a spirited debate on textbooks — for while some allege that history has been “re-written,” others have made it their goal “to rectify” what they claim to be skewed accounts. So it becomes a contest, or so it seems, between contending camps. This is when “truth” becomes the regulative concept — and, in respect to data and information, such as those that make their way into the textbooks our schoolchildren and university students read — this should mean “evidence-based.” I distinctly remember one precept drilled into us as philosophy students by the venerable Ariston Estrada: “Be prepared to defend every single proposition you advance.” In terms of discourse theory, what is true is what can be defended in the face of contestation and challenge and established by means recognized by all consociates as rational.
Taking up the matter of “national security” is touching a raw nerve. While there are some who believe that the State should hide no secrets from its citizens in whom, by juridical fiction, sovereignty resides, there will be staunch defenders of the position that the State is entitled, for the sake of the security of the nation, to keep some matters concealed from public view. My position has always been that the citizens are entitled to all the information that they need to perform their duties as citizens in a democratic society. Every professor of constitutional law will insist that this is exactly what the fundamental law contemplates. It is the praxis that is challenging and contentious.
The placement of troops and orders given for maneuvers, surveillance and related command-decisions, we can agree, are not needed for the exercise of citizenship and enable the defense arm of the State to do what it is supposed to do, unhampered by the snooping of the impertinent and the idle. Data likewise in the custody of government that have to do with the private lives of citizens should not feed the rumor mill. But the more the government holds back on information, the higher is the premium on penetrating data barriers, and I am not referring to amateur (or even professional) hackers in computer shops for whom breaking informatic defenses is pastime, but of humongous corporations which can afford to pay information technology experts to make available to them government data or state secrets vital to the conduct of their trade. Once more, of course, information becomes hostage to economic clout!
The point is that there is an undeniable push for the democratization of access to information, and to recognize threats to free access to information not only in government censorship or the barriers established by law, but also in the power that centers of influence and power — including corporations, universities, political parties and richly financed partisans — wield over the information, dissemination and guardianship of information.
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