… is recognizing there is one.” The point of Will McAvoy’s rant from the opening of the HBO series The Newsroom Season 1, Episode 1, titled “We Just Decided To” is that without being informed, B.S. will run rampant and be treated as truth. It’s worth watching, even though it’s a constructed moment from Aaron Sorkin:
A view from the tail-end of Gen-X
“Worst. Generation. Ever.” is a bit harsh… but that statement inflammatory though it may be should grab our attention because that view does come from a place of truth. I am the tail-end of Generation X, born in the mid-1970s, WWII veterans were two generations above me — my grandparents’ generation. Their parents watched the influence of radio, automobiles, and airplanes, while they and their offspring subsequently witnessed television, spaceflight, and products based on solid-state electronics (transistors). My generation is the last generation to really remember what the world was like pre-internet, and even pre-computers-everywhere. Typewriters were still ubiquitous, libraries had card catalogs instead of database software, mimeograph (“ditto”) machines were still used in schools before photocopiers/scanners replaced them, etc. To do research or learn, it took planning, effort, and significant time. Today, most information is at our fingertips every moment of every day thanks to wireless technology, computer miniaturization, and human/computer interface evolution. McAvoy’s comments in the clip above are a statement about how we are using that technology, and how it exposes what the collective taste and behaviors of humanity are really like — both bad, and good.
To someone who grew up having to make a concerted effort to obtain and consume information in order to learn, the attitude when consuming information was to hold onto it — permanently internalize some nuggets of truth from what one was consuming because it takes effort to re-learn it given the infrastructure and commitment required. To the Generation-Y/Millennial crowd, that mindset is replaced with one of the information always being available instantaneously, therefore the view is to not internalize but remember how to obtain the information. These same people also complain when they have no wifi or cell signal — they have become dependent upon information infrastructure much more deeply in order to function even in mundane tasks, and that makes them more fragile to flaws or problems in that infrastructure.
In today’s world, there is ever-more noise added into the signal of quality information because there are fewer (if any) gate-keepers between anyone’s ideas and mass distribution, and its becoming harder to discern the signal from the noise each day. I argue it even significantly contributed to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Therefore, I am advocating that we emphasize fundamentals information consumption before it’s too late — without editors in between the content creators and the consumers, we must take it upon ourselves to filter out the noise ourselves by being literate consumers. This should be emphasized and part of the literacy training every student receives in school — public or private.
A plea for literacy
Literacy is vital to a country’s ability to consume information, but without critical thinking and fact/resource checking, it can also be used against a populace through propaganda, or by throwing garbage “noise” information out there to cast doubt on things that are based on facts and are repeatable via science.
The USA is 7th in literacy rate of the 206 states in the world, according to the Washington Post in 2016. This has improved from11th, which is a good trend, but it may represent how close our neighbors are in ranking — small changes in the calculations can cause swings of a few places.
The OECD rank places the USA is 21st in Reading. Why the difference? Well, the WaPo article factors in accessibility to literature and library content, and other social factors. Scoring well on tests is one thing, but a nation’s “literary health” must-be assessed on more than just test scores, because en extremis knowing how to read but having limited or only biased information to consume does not make one fully “literate.” We need to take the time to read and take advantage of the information resources around us as we need it. Not just the internet where it’s “easier” to get information and also more likely to be self-limited–but via published books and public libraries from reputable editors and publishers. Those editors and publishers are doing a service of ensuring a certain level of credibility and quality — you should trust information coming from a credible publisher before a random blog on the internet, or worse: a social media post or email.
The internet removes the “gate-keepers” from the information dissemination process, and therefore raises the “noise” in the signal-to-noise ratio of consuming information. Having a digital way to get your content accessible is advantageous to the “little guy” who doesn’t have the money to pursue publishing and distribution by traditional pre-internet means. There’s great stuff available, but “buyer beware.” Blindly trusting what you find online is risky, and it puts the responsibility of determining quality and correctness completely on the consumer of the information, with little on the provider (which is where publishers/editors add value).
Think of it this way: in pre-internet days, self-published was kind of a warning to the reader and raised the following question: why didn’t a publishing house invest in this content, if it’s truly quality material? There are lots of stereotypical “uncles with half-baked ideas” that would self-publish pamphlets and comb-bound books out of their basements/garages, but they would have a difficult time distributing beyond their local spheres of influence. The internet turns this completely on its head (this blog included!). What I write here on WordPress is accessible to the world, but the chances of it being seen aren’t based solely on its content, but its popularity (number of clicks registered in a database somewhere, which can be artificially manipulated by web bots) or how much money I’m willing to pay to promote it (similar to what publishers do). Being popular or promoted is not at all correlated with truth. In fact, popularity and promotion are the most effective ways to disseminate false information… yet those are the very techniques used by Google and other search engines to produce results when we search for things. The research community uses something similar — the number of times a published work is referenced within the literature community for a specific subject matter. It is also weighted by the credibility of the author and the publisher who are both known quantities within the community. In my opinion, this is what is missing from algorithms like PageRank.
What information is worth internalizing?
With the internet at our fingertips, why bother reading, or learning at all for that matter? Can’t we just rely on Google, or other search engines to look up things for us? For facts/figures/trivia, yes. For concepts and understanding that you can apply at a moment’s notice without needing to go “consult the oracle” all the time? That’s where reading and doing come in. The more you consume and execute upon, that is what you internalize. And, once it’s internalized, it becomes much more efficient to act upon rather than being reliant on the internet for everything.
How do we do this? How can we tell the worthwhile from the trivial or transitory? The answer is to turn to how professional communities capture and distribute knowledge: vetting and referencing. These concepts are not difficult — however they are vital to ensuring that what we consume is not incorrect or existing only within a bubble of like-minded believers.
Ask yourself this: “Do I trust this source? If so, why? Can I defend the basis of my trust in it?” You can build trust in a source based on its track record: How many times has the source gotten things wrong? Are there conflicting stories on the same site for no apparent reason?
What McAvoy/Sorkin’s “worst generation” is getting wrong, and how to fix it
Having the internet at one’s disposal, relying on search engines too much, and not internalizing core information relevant to decision making makes one run the risk of what a colleague of mine calls “fibrilation”: the inability to make progress due to constant reliance on changing information. Knowing what is true (and being able to back it up with legitimate published facts) is critical to self-reliance and helps one focus towards goals. We can’t know everything, and we must rely on others to survive and lead a full life — however, we must know what is core to OUR lives, and internalize that information so we can disseminate and use it at a moment’s notice, or even add to that body of knowledge with something new.
Search engine results change based on the profiling of the individual doing the search. Perform the following experiment: search for the same exact search string on two different people’s computers using Google — you’ll get a different list and a different ranking. GOOGLE MAKES ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT THE END USER’S PREFERENCES AND INTENT BEFORE THE INFORMATION IS EVEN PRESENTED TO THEM. For an eye-opening treatise on this subject, see Eli Parisher’s book “The Filter Bubble.” So if we have a whole generation dependent upon technology for even basic knowledge, but that knowledge is being disseminated in different ways “tailored” to the end user, how can we expect consistency in the interpretation of the importance and relevance of the information presented? This is the fallacy of search engines, and millions of end users don’t even know they’re being profiled and fed information by an algorithm making assumptions about who they are and what is their intent. We as users of these systems need to take a stand and demand solid, repeatable, credible results of QUALITY not popularity. This is why I no longer search with Google or Yahoo, and instead use DuckDuckGo. You can too. You’ll be ok.
So, my plea to reverse this trend is for people to consider doing the following:
- Always ask “who wrote what I am reading?” and “Is this a credible source?”
- When looking up information, use search engines that don’t track the end user and use that information to filter/rank what is shown, like DuckDuckGo.
- Use ad blockers and “private” modes of web browser. Don’t leave any information for content providers to assume anything about you or your intentions. It’s OK to pay for credible sources like true journalistic endeavors who need the money to pay good journalists to produce valuable content. Think of it like subscribing to a newspaper — you’re paying for a service of vetted information that you can trust.
- Think. Be critical of what you read. If it seems too fantastic or weird, it probably is engineered that way to get more clicks/links/eyeballs to drive up popularity just to sell ads and make money online. Sites like BuzzFeed built their entire business model on this tactic (again, see Pariser’s book mentioned above). Don’t be more grist for the ad dollar mill (of which you don’t see a dime but can have your time wasted or worse be fed false information you mistake as true!) — instead, be an informed consumer of information.
- Use libraries and published works more than you use the internet for important information. You’re less likely to be led astray by the “noise” and you’ll keep these valuable institutions from “dying off” due to lack of use.
- Always be willing to present links/references to back up your facts when writing content. If you can’t, you’re not part of the solution, but perpetuating the “noise” problem.
- Be ready to call other folks on their falsehoods — ask for references. If they can provide them, consider their credibility along with the person who’s referencing them.
- Social media is never a credible sole source — it is a glorified rumor mill where anyone can say anything, and it should be treated as such.