On a New Organization of Thinking

This is something I had been thinking about for a while and haven’t taken the time to really sit down and write out fully (and the notes I took down a while ago are around here somewhere and will make an appearance later).

As a short introduction (to be added to later, possibly as an entirely different post):

So for a class I’m reading about historical sources, with two examples given of single diaries from which to extrapolate information about “what it was like” and so on. And although the source book doesn’t touch that much on the complications of digital sources (though it does some) it brings up the point that there is a huge increase in the production of text/information in the past, say, 100 or so years, as well as preservation. And yet this information is increasingly ephemeral – Emails are deleted, blogs taken down, CDs and other digital or magnetically recorded media decay (yes, they do – try playing the CDs you burned more than 5-6 years ago, if you have any… chances are at least one of them already has some blips in its sound quality), television and internet information comes and goes – and furthermore fewer people communicate in ways that are, archivally speaking, “permanent.” When was the last time you wrote someone a letter (a few words on a Christmas card doesn’t count in this context)? Kept a diary on paper? Kept any kind of coherent, regular reflection on your life in some written form? My contention is that fewer people do.

However, it is not my contention that this is inherently “wrong” or that we should start a campaign to bring back letter-writing and faithful keeping of diaries, for the sake of “history” or “our descendants.” It’s rather an observation that perhaps our relationship to, and capacity to understand, the information and records we create are indeed fundamentally changing. I’m not the first person to say this; a quick search for that Dilbert comic strip where Dogbert explains the age of digital information overload as “like a firehose aimed at a teacup” (firehose = everything we can know, teacup = our feeble and limited powers of comprehension), as well as an essay from Nov 2000 called “Computers Make You Stupid,” with other variations on this theme. Claiming the internet is a revolution of sorts is by now a major cliche, but THERE IS SOMETHING TO THIS. I think as important a question as “How do we encourage an informed democracy with knowledgeable and critically aware citizens?” is “How CAN we?” If we have the basic tools (internet access, literacy, availability of information through the press and other public sources), how do we put them to use?

I think the answer lies in emphasizing the most important of those basic tools, and one which I’m not sure we really possess yet, and am not sure how to get it. The ability to read and think, not just critically (i.e. with an eye for skepticism and inquiry which weighs one source of information against another) but EFFICIENTLY and EFFECTIVELY. If we have, quite quite literally, too much information at hand, we need to get better at processing it. That means reading faster, reading more, and perhaps even increasing the potential of the memory to catalogue information as needed and cross-reference it. And I’m not talking about memorization of “facts” per se – digital information storage, like Wikipedia (whatever its actual claim to authority and authenticity) and “real” encyclopedias, databases, digitally indexed searchable archives of information have made the need to carry around large amounts of these basic bits of information more or less irrelevant. More important is that you need to know where to get the information you need, how to get it quickly, and how to assess whether what you’ve just found is any good. The details themselves are no longer what’s important; what is important is establishing a strong framework in which to put the information you encounter at any given time, sort out what’s important, and relegate the rest to a kind of “for more, see X” mental index.

This suggests to me that a better way to approach the relationship between memory and knowledge – it’s not how much you know, it’s how you’ve arranged it in your mind. Perhaps this sounds like some kind of idealized, positivistic librarian’s attitude left over from the Enlightenment ideals of categorizing human knowledge. Maybe that’s true. But the difference lies in distinguishing between putting everything into set categories, and laying out a network, a web if you will, a framework in which to set facts. Let the facts come and go, if they’re not that important or they’re transient. Do you need to know how many people are living in the United States right now? Probably not. But it’s probably a good idea to know where to find it, and how to gauge its use in a political or argumentative context – such as, “the population is rapidly increasing and will cause problems in the near future” or the classic scare tactic, “this type of accident killed over 3,000 people in the past five years – could you be next?”

This might be a trivial example, but hopefully it illustrates the point that information (or more precisely, our relationship to available information) is really no longer about quantity alone. Of course memorizing discrete facts or storing trivia may be an interesting pursuit in itself, but in the face of an overwhelming volume of information produced (with varying degrees of foundation in reality) absorbing information alone is, frankly, a waste of time. It brings to mind my friend E in medical school, who has been frustrated with the classes’ focus on memorization of specific facts, enzymes, pathways, etc. “If I need to know any of this stuff for a particular patient’s case,” he observed, “I can look it up in a medical reference book.” This is a good point – and perhaps one missed by some of E’s classmates, who overwork themselves trying to memorize the “facts” alone. Faced – as we all now are, and only the more or less complete collapse of our entire digital infrastructure would reverse the trend – with a new proliferation of information to process, we need to stop memorizing and start mental-mapping.


1 comment so far

  1. zozer319 on

    Is it lame to leave a comment for yourself?

    Anyway, this may also go back to my explanation for keeping this blog in the first place – not to record “what I did today” (the information itself) but as rudimentary (at best) reflections on the organization and character of things, as they come and go in my mind. I guess that connection made more sense before I started writing it down, however. : )

    Also, as an epilogue, I turn again to the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) his take on the “wise fool” character, Jack Point in “The Yeoman of the Guard”:

    Winnow all my folly, folly, folly and you’ll find
    A grain or two of truth among the chaff!

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