Monday, February 22, 2010

Is knowledge drowning in a flood of information?

There have long been worries that the mass media are producing a “dumbing down” of American political culture, reducing political understanding to sound bites and spin. The Internet has been blamed for information overload, and, like MTV in prior decades, for a reduction in attention span as the text-based web became the multimedia web, and cell phones have become a more common tool for its use. Similar worries have been expressed about public understanding of science. Nicholas Carr has asked the question, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Yaron Ezrahi’s “Science and the political imagination in contemporary democracies” (a chapter in Sheila Jasanoff's States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order) argues that the post-Enlightenment synthesis of scientific knowledge and politics in democratic societies is in decline, on the basis of a transition of public discourse into easily consumed, bite-sized chunks of vividly depicted information that he calls “outformation.” Where, prior to the Enlightenment, authority had more of a religious basis and the ideal for knowledge was “wisdom”--which Ezrahi sees as a mix of the “cognitive, moral, social, philosophical, and practical” which is privileged, unteachable, and a matter of faith, the Enlightenment brought systematized, scientific knowledge to the fore. Such knowledge was formalized, objective, universal, impersonal, and teachable--with effort. When that scientific knowledge is made more widely usable, “stripped of its theoretical, formal, logical and mathematical layers” into a “think knowledge” that is context-dependent and localized, it becomes “information.” And finally, when information is further stripped of its context and design for use for a particular purpose, yet augmented with “rich and frequently intense” representations that include “cognitive, emotional, aesthetic, and other dimensions of experience,” it becomes “outformation.”

According to Ezrahi, such “outformations” mix references to objective and subjective reality, and they become “shared references in the context of public discourse and action.” They are taken to be legitimated and authoritative despite lacking any necessary grounding in “observations, experiments, and logic.” He describes this shift as a shift from a high-cost political reality to a low-cost political reality, where “cost” is a measure of the recipient’s ability to consume it rather than the consequences to the polity of its consumption and use as the basis for political participation. This shift, he says, “reflects the diminished propensity of contemporary publics to invest personal or group resources in understanding and shaping politics and the management of public affairs.”

But, I wonder, is this another case of reflecting on “good old days” that never existed? While new media have made new forms of communication possible, was there really a time when the general public was fully invested in “understanding and shaping politics” and not responding to simplifications and slogans? And is it really the case, as Ezrahi argues, that while information can be processed and reconstructed into knowledge, the same is not possible for outformations? Some of us do still read books, and for us, Google may not be “making us stupid,” but rather providing a supplement that allows us to quickly search a vast web of interconnected bits of information that can be assembled into knowledge, inspired by a piece of “outformation.”

[A slightly different version of the above was written as a comment on Ezrahi's article for my Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology core seminar. Although I wrote about new media, it is apparent that Ezrahi was writing primarily about television and radio, where "outformation" seems to be more prevalent than information. Thanks to Judd A. for his comments on the above.]

UPDATE (April 19, 2010): Part of the above is translated into Italian, with commentary from Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence, at his blog.

11 comments:

Neural Gourmet said...

I have the same concerns as you over the hand-wringing by the new media doomsayers. Their dire predictions are not much different than those floated when television and radio and even the newspaper came along. They're the same concerns I have whenever I hear somebody decrying the pitiful state of science knowledge in the U.S. When was it ever good?

I think people like you or I, and many of the pessimistic academics are in fact rarities in that we read books and synthesize information because we like to and/or can afford to or are paid to do so. That doesn't necessarily make us better than other people who don't like to read or practice thinking in any of its many forms. People do different things for different reasons.

I think there are demotivators to people staying adequately informed enough to make them high functioning citizens, such as income inequality/poverty and the need for two-income households, but I wouldn't count Google or Facebook or Twitter among them. People who aren't struggling to feed themselves, or aren't simply exhausted at the end of the day are more likely to show the curiosity and follow through on it rather than simply having their opinions spoon-fed to them by cable news.

I Doubt It said...

I've done some reading on science literacy for various classes and I've really changed my mind on it. I also used to shake my head but, really, outside of working in a scientific industry, what do you really NEED to know? If there is a pressing issue, the average USanian googles it or asks for advice from family & friends. So, I agree, it's never been good. It's been as practical as we needed it to be. It's been by necessity, just like math, art, religion, environmental and all those other "literacies". Unless the culture pushes citizens to be more literate about science, I can't see how any new curriculum will help.

Jim: your article reminded me of this one that I've been focused on recently. (Haack http://is.gd/8Yb7c) She rightly says (IMO) that there is too much published. It's trivial stuff and it encourages bad habits.

Jim Lippard said...

I Doubt It: I'm not sure "too much published" is a solvable problem, given that costs of publishing have gone way down with the Internet.

Neural Gourmet: I'm currently reading Nicholas Carr's _The Big Switch_, and what I find most concerning are findings that suggest that the Internet is compounding the confirmation bias problem, and the related issue Carr calls "ideological amplification," which leads to more polarization. My prof for the class I wrote this for suggests that the mass media plus the Internet has erased the former division between local and national politics, so that local politics is now dominated by those motivated by "outformations" about national issues (e.g., town halls on healthcare reform). _The Big Sort_ + _The Big Switch_ + _Bowling Alone_ = new problems... (though one of the critiques of Putnam's _Bowling Alone_ is the one you just pointed out--that the same claims were made about radio).

Neural Gourmet said...

Jim, I'm not sure we can blame our civic issues on the internet. I would look first to the way the main stream media has all but abdicated any responsibility for critical analysis and the collusion of the radical right with large fundamentalist religious and business interests. The radical and religious right are the ones who learned to take it local, and eventually worked up until they dominated the agenda of the GOP. They were also early adopters who made the most out of the internet.

So, in so far as cognitive biases are being reinforced and dominating national politics, I don't think it's the internet itself but the modern GOP machine and its myriad propaganda arms. It's only with the campaigns of Howard Dean and Barrack Obama that the Democrats have started to learn how to utilize the internet to spread their messages. And again, I'm not sure how this differs so much from the way politics worked in Hearst's time. It's just a different set of players.

I'm not unsympathetic to these sorts of arguments, but I just haven't seen any evidence that what people say is going on is actually happening. Does the internet amplify their message and help reinforce it? Surely. But as I said, so did TV, radio and newspapers before. I'm not convinced that there's anything new going so much as there's just so much more of the same old, same old happening. Perhaps the most troubling thing to me is that if these effects can be demonstrated, I'm not sure how they could be countered.

Interestingly, Dwight Furrow just today had a blog post on Nick Carr's and others thoughts in an Ars Technica article.

Neural Gourmet said...

Here's the relevant quote from the Ars Technica article:
"[Nick Carr]'Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.'

Such worries have been commonplace over the last few years, but are they accurate? The Pew Internet & American Life project polled 895 Internet "experts"—including Nick Carr—to see what they thought of such doom-laden prophecies.

It turns out that the experts don't see much merit to the worries; more than three-quarters of the sample concluded that Carr was wrong."

Jim Lippard said...

Neural Gourmet: I am reading a paper which makes reference to a 35-year-old paper (Philip E. Converse, "Public Opinion and Voting Behavior," in _Handbook of Political Science_, ed. Fred I. Greenstein and Nelson W. Polsby, Addison-Wesley, 2005) which complains about the radical and profound ignorance of the general public about political matters. An earlier paper by the same author ("The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics" in _Ideology and Discontent_ ed. David Apter, Free Press, 1964) makes a point similar to Ezrahi's about the packaging of political ideology for general public consumption as "apparently logical wholes that are credible to large numbers of people." So clearly that particular problem predates the Internet.

Carr's point about "ideological amplification" is a different one, and is backed up by the work of ASU political scientist Matthew Hindman, and that is that confirmation bias is the rule on the Internet--most people only read sources that support their ideologies. The "amplification" part is that when we are in social groups that share an ideology, we tend to become more extreme in our support of that ideology; the presence of dissent tempers it. By choosing self-selected online communities that we agree with, rather than local communities where we might have minority views, we are more likely to amplify and radicalize our ideological positions. I also mentioned _The Big Sort_ because it makes a similar argument about patterns of movement in the U.S., that people are sorting themselves out by political ideology and making political districts more radical and polarized in their positions.

This is a distinct issue from Carr's claim of the nature of the web changing how we think, which I agree with you doesn't seem well supported.

Jim Lippard said...

Oh, sorry, meant to add one more point from Carr's _The Big Switch_ related to ideological amplification--that is that Google's search algorithm became "personalized search," where your search results are personalized to match your proclivities--and thus make you less likely to visit websites that you aren't interested in, and by extension from Carr's argument, less likely to encounter contrary information or cognitive dissonance.

Neural Gourmet said...

I'll have to make a note to check out Hindman's work.

I do have concerns about Google's Personalized Search algorithm. I've noticed that over time, many of the sites that used to regularly annoy me are no longer being served up in results (alt-med, pseudoscience, conspiracy cranks). I've had a GMail account since 2004 so I assume Google's algorithm has a pretty good idea of what I like ny now. I haven't tried putting Firefox into private browsing mode to see how search results differ.

Jim Lippard said...

Correction on that _Handbook of Political Science_ citation--the year is 1975, not 2005!

Jim Lippard said...

Hindman has a 2008 book from Princeton University Press called _The Myth of Digital Democracy_. Carr just cites a talk he heard Hindman give, but the book covers the same thesis.

Jim Lippard said...

The article I'm currently reading is Jeffrey Friedman, "Popper, Weber, and Hayek: The Epistemology and Politics of Ignorance," _Critical Review_ vo. 17, nos. 1-2, 2005, pp. i-lviii. (BTW, if you want to see a devastating critique of libertarianism, Friedman's "What's Wrong with Libertarianism" is it--a critique of the sort that only a former advocate, in this case one with degrees in philosophy & history (B.A., Brown), history (M.A., C.Phil., Berkeley), and political science (M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D., Yale), can bring to bear.)

I just read this sentence: "... Converse's most disturbing and under-remarked finding is that _the relatively well informed compensate in dogmatism for their greater knowledgeability_." (p. xxii)

This makes sense, unfortunately. Experts tend to see through theoretical and ideological lenses that allow for the organization of representations of reality in a systematic way, yet which may not (read: surely doesn't) fully accord with reality in all respects.