Fun-size facts are unhealthy food for thought: Jack Sounds Off

Posted by Jack Ferguson

I will wager that each of us has heard some version of this common, modern aphorism: the Internet is making your generation stupider. Occasionally, the adults wagging their fingers entertain a fair portion of humility, and includes themselves, or at least those of their age, in this blanket statement.

Unfortunately, the practice of blanketing the campus with posters that pronounce un-cited abbreviated factoids proves that the Internet, with its wealth of fun-size knowledge morsels, has spawned a culture of communication that makes us stupider.

Many of our leading intellectuals (most eloquently Steven Pinker in the New York Times) have very ably countered this claim. Many remain glumly unconvinced. Perhaps both camps have some credit to their argument.

Most of us students understand that computers are tools and, when used correctly, greatly expand our learning horizons; they increase our ability to interact with and grow in our knowledge.

Yet the laments of the pessimists – howling steadily, Viking-like from the depths of their armchairs – are not totally off base. Such irrational fear springs from real danger.

At root, the danger is this: a new trend in learning will arise, in which a multitude of sound bites accumulate in an individual's mind, and though many, all lack nuance and substance – and we will call this knowledge. Our culture risks substituting depth and comprehension for speed, ease and clarity.

Interestingly, we of the university system are perhaps the realest staging ground for the battle over the emerging direction of knowledge. We take part in proving ourselves every day. Too often, however, and with the most important issues, we take the easy, simple route of conveying information.

We live in an era of Twitter and pundits' chalkboards. Loud declamations of statistics are too, too familiar – in the way that the act of breathing is familiar, yet forgettable.

For the last four years, I have seen various bits of information, on posters and in chalk, that seem willfully intended to exist solely in themselves, outside or above conversation. Scrawled or typed snippets from un-cited studies dot our place of learning.

Such mass distribution of simple sentence facts – hate-crime statistics, trends of sexual assault on campuses, STI distribution – no doubt intends to educate, and perhaps give voice to, subjects often stifled in public discourse. Yet the effect is to usher information on important issues into our library of sound bites, of factoids. This is unipolar discussion; this is hardly information at all.

If one person stands up in a room and shouts into a megaphone, we will no doubt listen and incorporate the topic of his or her shouting into our separate conversations. If over a dozen people stand up throughout the year and shout into a megaphone, we will end up aggravated and rolling our eyes. This cannot happen to our gravest and most urgent issues.

For now, let us assume that the recipients of such campus-wide campaigning want very much to know and grow in knowledge (this seems fair given the price of tuition). Further, let us imagine that students care dearly about the community in which they daily exist, and want nothing more than to see it flourish.

Wouldn't such an environment, with such exciting people, be all but perfect for comprehensive publications with cited sources and suggestions for further reading?

 We live in an era of Twitter and pundits' chalkboards. Loud declamations of statistics are too, too familiar – in the way that the act of breathing is familiar, yet forgettable.

Perhaps we ought to consider that distribution of disparate facts does not contribute to our education or a sense of support for urgent causes. Perhaps it is causing detriment.

I know that when I see a poster telling me about my community as a result of a survey conducted of Skidmore students, I want to know how many people responded, what that percentage means. I am uneasy being told a statistic about my living environment for which the background specifics are obscure.

If I am learning about hate crimes, I want to know where they most frequently occur, among what groups of people, whether they have been on the decline the past decade or on the rise.

We are the new generation of highly educated citizens, and we have a new, revolutionary tool. Right now, it is under-utilized as a resource and an adjunct to how we pursue our educations. Conversely, it can too easily be accessed to call up easy, micro-bits of information.

We are called to demonstrate just how much we are capable of, how much we understand, how hungrily we perceive.

We are expected to adhere to the highest standards of academic integrity; we ought to be able to ask that of those above us, advising us. Because making propaganda of very complicated urgent issues – that will certainly make us stupider.

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