The Effort to Know

Posted on Oct 17, 2016

We live in a glorious time: information is more accessible to us than at any time in the past, by far. A middle schooler in a small town has access to more information using her phone today than a Nobel Prize winning researcher did in 1900 using the greatest library of the time. Unfortunately, our mental capacity as humans did not progress as much, on average. This led to a situation where we are incapable to process the huge amount of information we’re being bombarded with. By default, our lazy brains cope by developing “shortcut” techniques: we became skilled at skimming through hundreds of tweets, posts and headlines in a very short amount of time (I am as guilty of this as the next person). The distributors of information are well aware of this: they honed mechanisms to catch our attention and help us consume bite sized, semi-digested “content”: click-baiting headlines, tweets, “listicles”, fact-checks, “memes”. Easily understandable, broken down, eye-catching, easily shareable.   I think of this type of “content” as the information equivalent of junk food: engineered to taste better and satisfy faster, tempting to consume much more than the body needs, and unfortunately not that nutritious. But as anybody who consumed a gallon of Coke or a party-sized bag of Fritos knows: there is a price to pay.   When you skim over tweets, headlines in your Facebook feed or Reddit and watch 20 second videos with no sound, you’re not attaining knowledge but something else:

  1. Reduced to not capture 90% of the topic at hand and its complexity.
  2. Manipulated by an interested party to steer your opinion in some direction.

Importantly, these are not just philosophical ramblings: if you, like me, believe that the advancement of civilization is achieved using the spread and application of knowledge, it’s clear that this process is leading us on a path of a under-informed, unknowledgeable society that is incapable of making good decisions, which will inevitably stall progress.   Simply put, in a tweet form: if we keep consuming information they way we are now, as a society we’ll make dumb decisions and we won’t have nice things.   Man reading newspaper So here are our responsibilities and the tools we must use to avoid this situation, in chronological order:

  1. The first step is to realize that the world has dramatically changed in how information is being packaged and distributed: the majority of information we access is not being actively sought out, retrieved and processed by us (what computer scientists call “pull”). It is being carefully structured, pre-processed, targeted and “pushed” out to us. Before: You go to a library, find a book, read the book, try to make sense of it. After: A carefully crafted computer algorithm sends you an impossible-to-ignore piece of content, drawing your attention to it by vibrating a supercomputer inside your pocket.This means information reaches us when our guards are down and we are exposed to being manipulated.
  2. We must also be constantly aware that information is always being actively positioned, packaged and manipulated by interested parties. This is not a new phenomenon: journalists always had opinions; no story can be told without bias and perspective. The new parts, however, are meaningful: the reach, influence and ability to spread manipulated content are vastly greater than in the past. Additionally, the identity and motivation of the influencers and manipulators are much less conspicuous than before, which makes us, the consumers, less careful and more susceptible to manipulation. We must approach every piece of information with high suspicion and skepticism, if we want to uncover true knowledge.
  3. Being aware of the two points above, we ought to force ourselves to study in-depth every topic of interest and piece of “news” or “information” we encounter and consume. The following methods of information consumption are invalid and amount to zero new knowledge attained: Reading a headline or title. Clicking through and skimming over an article. Reading the entire article without understanding the background of the topic and the background, opinions and biases of the author.Note also that if after using one of the above inadequate methods of information consumption, you are to form an opinion and/or share the content on the internet - you’re doing even more damage by increasing the chances that one of your friends will fall into the same trap.

So, if the above behavior does not expand our knowledge, what does? To actually expand our knowledge we have to:

  1. Read through a long-form piece of information (article length or more).
  2. Thoroughly research the background and general opinions of the author and her affiliations.
  3. Thoroughly research the topic and the context of the piece of information.
  4. Actively seek out and consume long-form alternative and opposing opinions on the subject presented in the original piece of content.

Only thus we are truly learning something and allowing ourselves to form an opinion.   Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is. But let’s not delude ourselves thinking we can skip this work and still reap the benefits of a functioning  civilization that promotes our well being.