Incuriosity is a thing, and why not?

One of the aspects of our digital communication cycles that I genuinely lament is the furious pace and volume of generated material. Of course, all this writing, analysis, commentary — it’s too much, too fast, too fragmented for us to possibly hope to stay abreast in our fields of interest. But we keep trying. We learn to skim purposefully. We share widely and often with specific targets in mind. We add our own thoughts to the mix with good intentions and this is how the next blog post, think piece, extended response gets written and miraculously finds more than a pair of readers.

Astounding, really.

It so happens that I read an article, a blog post and opinion piece over the weekend and although they didn’t seem to be related, there are elements which come together in ways I would not have anticipated.

I’ll start with a blog post by Martin Weller which sparked a remarkably engaging conversation in the comment section: Open Education and the Unenlightenment. The post raises questions about how open education should proceed to ‘work its magic’ in a culture which seems increasingly to be moving away from valuing intellectual output and hard-won expertise.

In a complex world, people don’t want to hear that there aren’t simple solutions, so the media has dismissed anyone who says otherwise. We can all find our favourite reasons for this I guess: globalisation, neo-liberalism, mass media, etc. That’s beyond the scope of this post. But it does seem that deliberately, and wilfully remaining ignorant is now seen as acceptable, and indeed desirable in a way that once was not the case. That’s my contention anyway, I’m happy to be corrected.

While he often apologizes in responding to comments for not making his point clearly enough, what struck me in reading both the post and the comments was precisely that he leaves room for further thinking and discussing.

In closing, Martin Weller states: “ Education needs to fight not only for its own relevance, but for the culture within which it is situated. Open education needs to ask this of itself though.”

This post caught me in an emotional response. I fret for our societies, for our cultures, for our common capacities to peacefully coexist in too many contexts to count. And I agree that people will avoid dealing with complexity wherever possible because it’s often messy and time consuming, difficult and draining. And I belong to that cohort. My first impulse in response to complexity is to flee which is typically also not a viable option, so I have developed other responses to cope. While generalizing can get you into trouble pretty quickly, what Martin Weller describes based on recent observations resonated on many levels and for that I am immensely grateful.

Then I read this piece by Patrick Phillips in LitHub: The Case for White Curiosity: Interrogating the Devastating Effects of White Supremacy in America. Besides addressing his own history of sidestepping authentic conversations on race, he borrows Ta-Nehisi Coates’ concept of “white incuriosity” to make sense of how well documented and carefully archived evidence of crimes against black citizens can remain undisturbed for decades. He writes:

My book Blood at the Root tells the full story of the racial cleansing, and after searching for the traces of those events for nearly a decade, I can now see that my long silence on the subject of race wasn’t respectful or polite, as I used to pretend. Instead, like so many other white Americans, I was being woefully, dangerously incurious about the real history of my home.

This concept of being ‘incurious’ fascinates me. ‘Not curious’ means that we feel no need to pose questions about a thing or to wonder about its origins. It’s not so much that we are against the thing, it simply stays off (not even under) our radar. To be incurious seems hardly blamable at first blush. It invites an ‘If-you’re-not-concerned, you’re-not-concerned’ (and that’s okay) kind of logic. I imagine incuriosity as particularly tough to recognize, measure or weigh. We don’t know what we don’t know, right?

In a complex world, not asking questions, not having questions, might seem pretty comfortable for some. Maybe the desire is not at all to remain ignorant as Weller’s “Unenlightenment” might indicate, but rather to inhabit a space of predictable and seemingly safe incuriosity. Because, really, who wants to end up like that cat we’ve all heard about?

Finally, a third article kinda put the icing on the proverbial cake. The Price of Connection: ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ by London School of Economics Professor of Media, Nick Couldry, leaves little room for doubt that we’ve all gotten and are also giving away much more than we bargained for in our use of various digital technologies which populate and animate the internet.

Online platforms, in spite of their innocent-sounding name, are a way of optimising the overlap between the domains of social interaction and profit. Capitalism has become focused on expanding the proportion of social life that is open to data collection and data processing: it is as if the social itself has become the new target of capitalism’s expansion.

This is not headline news. We’re over this, it seems, in that we’ve grown used to a handful of mega corporations which put a premium on every click we make controlling nearly every aspect of our online behaviors. So many things are now so convenient, so simple, so easy we’ve forgotten to wonder about what this all may be costing us in the short and long term.

After quoting Hegel on freedom as a form of ‘being with oneself’, Couldry offers this description of our present:

Here the self is not isolated, but endlessly being mediated through the world: the world of other things and people, and of its past self and actions. But it can be free if it comes to grasp such processes as its own — related to its goals and not those of others. It is just this that becomes harder to sustain under surveillance capitalism.
In a world where our moment-to-moment existence is already being tracked and (according to some) better understood by external data-processing systems, the very idea of an independent space of subjectivity from which one can have “freedom” collapses.

What does it mean now when we say that someone is ‘left to their own devices’? As our devices continue to grow in prominence and our privacy is increasingly compromised, will we consciously choose to tamp down our claims to free will? I suspect the most obvious and predictable response would be a hearty “No way!” in most circles I inhabit.

But the evidence of action (or rather, inaction) suggests a different impulse. Incuriosity strikes again. It’s not that we don’t care about what happens with and through our data. Rather, we like things that work and work well. That appear to make our lives easier, more comfortable. That make us feel safer, healthier, and smarter. We like our gadgets and the conveniences they afford. In this state of mind, I’m curious about what’s next, what’s better, more efficient, cheaper. I am less likely to feel a need to be curious about who is bearing the costs of these ‘advances’, or to wonder about who is buying all the data that I generate day in and day out and what they are doing with it.

Incuriosity is selective. And that’s it’s most attractive feature. It has a capacity to work in a sort of stealth mode in our deeply human psyche. Free will is hardly free. It, too, requires space and attention to be felt and have an impact. When we choose to fill up on convenience, constant contact, and insist on remaining plugged in, we leave less space for free will to grow. We crowd out the need for wide ranging and surface-piercing curiosity. We may not turn our backs on the offer of new knowledge but we want to make sure it comes from the right sources.

Complexity is never going to be everybody’s friend. But complexity met with curiosity can become a source of momentum or points of departure; opportunities to broaden rather than narrow our fabulous humanity. Even as I dare to toss another think piece on the ever-growing pile, please let’s strive to achieve the former.