Removing the blinkers
Being informed and questioning in the age of information overload
I have always work under the assumption that a well read individual is a better informed individual.
So started a conversation between a contact and myself recently.
“I wish other people thought the same, maybe I’d be less frustrated and cynical”, I continued.
It’s part of a conversation triggered by the frustration shown in a status I had published a week earlier.
How did we get here?
With the abundance of information available to even the most average individual, you’d expect that we would have generated a better informed public.
Instead, it seems to breed apathy.
Simple, neglectful indifference by average punters to fact check any claims they are exposed to creates the kind of fertile crass ignorance that can be plowed by politicians & campaigners to grow messages that feed distorted, simplistic stereotypes that are consumed by a public seeking their own self-interests & bias confirmations.
[Is it] Because they assume that someone else is keeping them honest?
Don’t misinterpret me, I don’t believe I have the answers. Not.at.all.
However, as I have written before, I do have the questions – and sometimes that is far more important. My enlightened self interest is always tempered by most important question of “who benefits most from what has been stated?” If the answer doesn’t include “my country, my community, my family or me” then who is it really for and why am I entertaining it?
I perceive that in part at least, the problem comes from a mix of issues. The biggest may very well be the paradox of choice in an age of information overload. Data is everywhere. Newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, online news services, blogs, social media, RSS feeds …
People have become lazy. As Aldous Huxley prophesied in “Brave New World” people have so much information that they are reduced to passivity with the truth concealed from us (not through censorship as George Orwell feared in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”), drowned out in a sea of irrelevance.
Where once news media outlets were the bastions of vetted information that was researched and provided sans-opinion, today it seems that the majority of journalistic writers are far more likely to be overpaid opinion bloggers, formatters of press releases or simply marketing copywriters.
In an age of commercially driven profitable media where cost cutting is king and a sub twenty four hour news cycle dominates, can we expect any less? Perhaps it is unfair for us to expect that the norm should be the investigative journalism of former years?
In fact, News is bad for your health. Well, at least that is one assertion that Rolf Dobelli, author of “The Art of Thinking Clearly” puts forward in an essay available from his website entitled “Avoid News”.
So, how does one go forward? My original hypothesis is rendered useless in the face of this brave new onslaught, is it not?
Can we be considered well informed and well read if we are fed a diet of irrelevant opinion pieces and revenue driven infotainment? Can we trust any of the news feeds at all? Traditional or otherwise?
How do I maintain my need to be informed whilst also ensuring a level of verifiable validity, unadulterated facts and the virtue of integrity?
The reality is that it is unlikely that we, in this day and age, will find all of these values in just one source of “the truth”.
Due to these trends, I have altered my news reading preferences – I do not mean simply the sources, but also the mediums. I must gather information from a number of sources if I am to continue to try to sort the wheat from all that chaff.
But even with all of this, a well informed mind is one that is well read – but the reading cannot be news alone.
Books, research papers, documentaries and other learning media all offer the ability to broaden the mind. They open your mind’s eye, offering new perceptions and allowing you to evaluate information from differing perspectives.
Rolf actually goes one step further and admonishes his readers to “Go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey.”
Make news as inaccessible as possible. Delete the news apps from your iPhone. Sell your TV. Cancel your newspaper subscriptions. Do not pick up newspapers and magazines that lie around in airports and train stations. Do not set your browser default to a news site. Pick a site that never changes. The more stale the better. Delete all news sites from your browser’s favorites list. Delete the news widgets from your desktop.
However, it would seem that it is far easier to determine the “truth” of a subject if one is familiar with the subject, even broadly, though deeper is better.
For example, if one is not exposed to the vaccine research industry and the requirements demanded of material producers, how can one determine if a story about a producer or method is correct? How does one determine if an egg producer is justified in denying access to the property and the sheds?
Rolf also presses upon his readers the same point -
Read magazines and books which explain the world – Science, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. Go for magazines that connect the dots and don't shy away from presenting the complexities of life – or from purely entertaining you. The world is complicated, and we can do nothing about it. So, you must read longish and deep articles and books that represent its complexity. Try reading a book a week. Better two or three. History is good. Biology. Psychology. That way you'll learn to understand the underlying mechanisms of the world. Go deep instead of broad.
However, it is a known fact that learning requires appetite. We are not likely to learn if we do not find interest in a subject. Like a horse fed on sugar cubes, carrots and apples, there is no point walking it towards the feed bin for what incentive will it have to munch on dry Lucerne hay?
That said, such a diet will do nothing for the overall health of the horse. So, it requires a fine balance of nutrition and treats. So it is with our minds – seek out and enjoy material that truly interest you.
In a similar vein, Callie Schweitzer asks “How do you get your news?” in an article she wrote and published on Medium entitled “How We Internet: Finding the right news among too many options”
Whilst her arguments are also in relation to the paradox of choice, it is primarily argued from locating news. She states that there are two kinds of news: news you find, and news that finds you.
News you find is content you actively seek out: opening a news app to see the top headlines, flipping through a magazine you subscribe to, making your way over to CNN or NYTimes.com. News that finds you is anything inbound: news that comes to you via a social network, e-mail, or instant message.
Rolf makes the same claim via more traditional interactions -
If some bit of information is truly important to your profession, your company, your family or your community, you will hear it in time – from
your friends, your mother-in-law or whomever you talk to or see.
Whereas Rolf appeals to an exclusion diet, Callie, in her article espouses a buffet style smorgasbord.
Sitting between the two dietary styles, I find myself unable to wean myself off the “bright-colored candies” whilst still craving the nutrition and satiation of well balanced information.
So, I found myself coming at it from a different direction with a different requirement, but in so doing, still utilising the same types of buffet methods that Callie explains. The difference, in my case, are the sources and apps that have changed to meet my own requirements. In short:
- I still read a paper: I scan them once a day and read a particular weekly edition. I agree with Callie that it exposes you to news that you may not normally read, simply by having the paper open and scanning past headlines.
- Use a “read later” app: I also use “pocket” but I know of others who choose to utilise “instapaper”. This is great for those in depth (or in the social media parlance - TL;DR) articles, web-pages, blog pieces or other media that you are interested in but simply do not have time for at the instance of discovery. Much like Callie, I tend to read these during my “dead times” – commutes, waiting rooms … and, yes, as much as we are not meant to admit it in polite company, even during toilet times. Those that I find worthy of further value – whether to reread, research or continued consideration tend to find themselves transferred into one of my evernote notebooks.
- I prefer to utilise Flipboard to merge my reading “navigation paths”. Those “bright-colored candies” that drop out of Facebook, Twitter (both my accounts and specific #hashStreams), G+, Tumblr, LinkedIn, LifeHacker, TheConversation, ABC News, CSIRO, and other news feeds of interest all get amalgamated into a magazine format that makes it far easier to consume. Where given a choice, between newsletter and RSS feeds, the latter wins and I try to amalgamate them all into this app.
- Where an RSS feed is not an option, I will subscribe to digests - though this I tend to limit to specific industry bodies rather than news sources.
- I still subscribe to a few magazines – I used to choose just print because of the same reason as having a physical newspaper – but my environmental sensibilities have since replaced (all those that offer it) from physical to electronic subscriptions.
- Books. My medium of choice when i seek depth over breadth has always been and perhaps always will be the book. I have bought and borrowed thousands - Need I say more?
There are sure to be a great many other ways to broaden your mind – training and courses, travel, etc – but a broad spectrum of news and information is still, to me, one of the best ways.
Here’s the crunch – due to the paradox of choice, due to this plethora of competition and the instant-on reporting requirements actually shifts the responsibility of questioning, the responsibility of fact checking, indeed the very essence of impartiality (if that is what we desire) back onto us, the readers, viewers, consumers.
Put simply, we can no longer expect that news services are based on investigative journalism. No longer can one expect well formed, researched and vetted articles. No longer can we expect objectivity.
So, just don’t read blindly, always – and I do mean always – question.
Performing even a most cursory of fact checking can reveal so much more. You might be surprised at the level of misinformation you are exposed to every day.
Even from the sources you think you trust.
Recycled with edits from a previous personal blog post