Several days ago, Eric Hobsbawm passed away. He was a renowned British intellectual and historian whose best-known works include “The Age of…” series, which chronicles intellectual, political and social developments over the centuries. The most recent volume, “The Age of Extremes” [published in 1994], focusses on the 20th century.
Hobsbawm died at the age of 95. He spent the majority of his years researching the variables of human societies, and chronicling the evolution of major ideas.
He passed away at a highly significant moment with regards to major political and intellectual ideas.
In his book “The Age of Extremes”, Hobsbawm highlights the impact of the information and communications explosion and the speed in which news is transmitted among the people. He indicates that the current flow of information, i.e. at the end of the 20th century, was not possible for former rulers and their governments, and that this situation warrants greater levels of analysis and understanding rather than just the simple transmission of news and information. This sentiment was also shared by Ibrahim al-Aris in his excellent column “A thousand Faces for a Thousand Years” published in al-Hayat newspaper.
Hobsbawn’s observation is right on the mark, and we would expect that given he was one of the few wise men who remained amidst such confused and clamorous times.
Hobsbawm’s observation came even before the real breakthroughs in the field of information transfer and its mechanisms, with the emergence of rapid communication networks such as Twitter. Nowadays everyone is adopting stances and breaking news; talking, observing and reacting in a deafening mass gathering. Yet the downside of this is that there is a serious lack of understanding, analysis and perception.
A piece of information, like a knife, is a tool that can be used either in a constructive or harmful manner, depending on who is using it.
The empty praise heaped on the free flow of information, the glorification of Twitter and other social networks, and the claim that the age of the elite is over and that everyone is equal; all these are particularly harmful to the process of forming ideas and understanding. Indeed, such rhetoric, as promoted by individuals in the cultural and media domain, serves as a critical blow to the principles of inquiry and understanding, for any form of serious research and rational understanding ultimately stems from the informed elite, not populism. Is it true that those heaping praise on this trivial and superficial flow of information, under the pretext that we are living in an age of public freedom, are actually seeking to announce the death of deliberation and inquiry, which in turn are prerequisites for genuine and constructive thought?
If Abu Hayan al-Tawhidi, al-Jahiz, Ibn Khaldun, Will Durant, Eric Hobsbawm or Arnold Toynbee were alive today and using Twitter accounts, would the masses be entitled to demand intellectual equality and dispute with these illustrious thinkers over various issues, under the pretext that the age of the elite has passed?
Triviality lives on, but may Hobsbawm rest in peace.