From Words to Wordfeud: notes on a lecture

There is a strange idea that we are living in the information age and that this age is something bright, shiny and new. Now I don’t mean that we are not in the information age but my concern is the idea that information is something new and exciting.

When talking economics it may be true that we have been in the information age since the 1960s or 70s but this is not what people seem to mean when they use the term as an everyday concept.

“The idea is linked to the concept of a digital age or digital revolution, and carries the ramifications of a shift from traditional industry that the industrial revolution brought through industrialization, to an economy based on the manipulation of information, i.e., an information society.” Wikipedia

We have always been immersed in information. Information about which mushrooms are edible can be life or death knowledge but for most of us today its just trivia. However, we do not raise ourselves by trivializing their vital knowledge.

The lecture opened with a discussion of language and writing. Despite our interest and focus on writing it is relevant to remember that writing is “only” 6000 years old (Wikipedia). Which means we spent 190 000 years without writing. This means that we have evolved in speechless and oral environments. On that topic, check out the Gutenberg Parenthesis lecture by Thomas Pettitt where he explains:

… the way in which he uses the term the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the idea that oral culture was in a way interrupted by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the roughly 500 years of print dominance; a dominance now being challenged in many ways by digital culture and the orality it embraces.

And in the same way as we have, through evolution, an interest in finding energy rich foods (high fat, high sugar) we have evolved to view stored information as scarce, important and valuable. Therefore, on an evolutionary scale, things like the Gutenberg press, telegraphs, telephones, fax machines, computers and the Internet are all recent history.

Therefore recent changes like the book and the Internet are still impacting the ways in which we act and react socially. Technology is both an agent and effect of change.

This was followed by an introduction to social media and a discussion to why it is seen as social. The argument here is that we now have an infrastructure to allow us to enact basic communication rights established 300 years ago. With the platforms available to us theoretical rights become inevitable practice. The technology is also challenging many of our legal, ethical, social, economic, political (etc) norms.

One aspect of social media is pretty obvious: Now that we have an endless supply of valuable and important information – we mainly focus on trivial stuff. Facts are a given. The comparison I make is that since we have evolved in information scarce environments we seem to be instinctively drawn to energy rich information. Entertainment and trivia is the fatty and sugary, calorie rich, version of information – the question is what do we do when we are moving towards information obesity?

I offered an example from my schooldays where the focus was on fact knowing. Questions like what is the capital of Burkina Faso (which when I went to school was called Upper Volta)? But is this useful knowledge when everyone has access to the source of information? Schools have been successful since they offered the promise of jobs once the students were done. Now the jobs are not guaranteed anymore and we have come to realize that the factory vision of schools were probably never successful.

On this theme I highly recommend the brilliant (and funny) Ted Talk by Ken Robinson called Do schools kill creativity?

He argues that we have no idea about what the future will bring and yet we are attempting to educate children to meet that future. One thing we should take home is that creating specialists is less than useful when we have no idea if that specialty is useful in the future. Another argument for the so-called “useless” humanities!

I closed with four problems. (1) are we all stupid? Actually this should be that we are unaware of what is happening around us and this is happening to our detriment. Problem (2): we don’t know what we don’t know. This is important because earlier we may have relied on teachers and librarians to tell us what we should know. But this is not going to happen with the gatekeepers online as they have no interest in social enlightenment. Problem (3): There is a difference between who I want to be and who I am… Since online gatekeepers are interested in keeping us happy through personalization they will feed us with what we want (information obesity) rather than with what we may need. Problem (4): the gatekeepers are aware of this! Their advantage lies in our ignorance and/or interest in their abilities. There have always been gatekeepers but we usually knew their motives (good or evil)

An important role for educators is to enlighten us of the gatekeeper’s desires and motives of gatekeepers. I ended up with a depressing note: You don’t have to be unconscious to be without consciousness.

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