Consuming Information is the Antithesis to Learning

By Michael Borrelli
Published September 09, 2009

Aging has always offered the perfect platform for long-delayed reflections on the ways in which the world is changing. I mean, the letters to the editor page in the newspaper has always been the place where any old crank can lament on the decline of the world-at-large, and those declines are almost always the consequence of some newfangled way of doing things.

These time-tested reactions are so common now that I can safely rely on them as cliché, whether its bemoaning the advent of a new technology, fashion, custom or idea.

Apparently Socrates was very suspicious of the written word, conferring primacy to an oral traditional in his philosophizing. Surely early democrats could empathize; trying to convince people that self-rule would be better than subservience to the King or feudal lords.

Empiricists (thankfully) promoted the belief that knowledge was produced through what they could see, feel and experience, and we owe a lot of the technological advances of the past three centuries to scientists and empiricist and rationalist philosophers who legitimized the productive use of skepticism.

And now, as Ryan pointed out in a recent essay, people are just starting to ask important questions about the way in which we interact with information and the effect its having on our mental faculties and focus.

Whether our global society is just momentarily over-stimulated or this is the beginning of a long decline in the collective consciousness is still unknown, but I'll happily risk being on the wrong side of history and play the role of the crank witnessing profound changes he doesn't fully understand.

Knowledge as Commodity

Consuming information is the antithesis to learning. Much in the way that rote learning strips away from the student a deeper appreciation of a topic, having easy, unlimited access to almost every conceivable piece of human knowledge changes the way in which we interact with information.

There's always been a human desire for information, but now that there is now virtually an unlimited supply of it and the cost of storing it is relatively cheap (despite half billion dollar price tags for Google server farms), demand has exploded.

Many of us cubicle drones spend our days foraging for the next meaty morsel, and while I haven't seen much evidence that the citizens of the world have gotten vastly more knowledgable since the advent of the Information Age, we have certainly created countless experts on how to find information.

However, this stands in opposition to actually creating and nurturing citizens with a base of knowledge on a given topic that can be independently recalled and put to constructive use.

This might sound pedantic, but information workers are a far cry from knowledge workers who become experts in given areas. This is not a criticism of generalists either: generalists still seek knowledge and consume it deeply with the aim of storing it an applying it to a wide variety of scenarios.

Inevitable Trade-Off

So what does it say about our culture when the cost-benefit analyses surrounding information and knowledge push us towards merely acquainting ourselves with lots of marginally useful information at the expense of getting to know a few things relatively well?

An instrumental-rationalist approach to learning disallows us from developing the cognitive tools necessary for formulating a balanced and holistic view of the world, and if you believe that knowledge is socially cumulative and can contribute to betterment for humankind, then it also affects societal progress and quality of life.

Sure, there is a trade-off when it comes to learning, and someone who knows too much about one topic at the expense of others (think your prototypical egghead) is as impoverished as someone who knows nothing at all.

There is also the suggestion that actively managing how much information you consume and process is actually a positive, since it frees up our minds for higher-level processing, but I think that it's much more likely that creating active filters for learning stunts our ability to appreciate the wide variety of stimuli and experiences that enrich the human experience.

Worse still, we fail to develop a sufficiently deep and intricate understanding of our increasingly complex world.

Shallow Appreciation of Subjects

I guess there's no point in lamenting mere possibilities, but we should always keep in mind that the internet, or Google, or whatever, is in no way imbuing us with any of that information, only making it easier to find.

This by itself is of massive importance, and it actually sounds like the Promised Land, a place where we aren't at the mercy of established 'experts' and 'authorities' who act as gatekeepers to long-hidden secrets that might benefit us all.

But I am worried that a shallow appreciation of subjects is not truly emancipatory. Still required to do anything useful with that knowledge is a nimble and well-trained mind capable of advanced literacy, analysis, and critical thought.

But to gain these skills alone requires focus and a desire to delve deeper into issues, and it seems more and more as though it's not possible to live in both worlds at the same time.

To be able to sit and quietly read a 1,300 page book on European history is not to spend dozens of hours trawling blogs and news websites for the latest tidbit of novelty that will be subsequently forgotten a few hours after consuming it.

And being voracious information consumers also means rampant waste - we are not simply wasting our cognitive capabilities, or precious hours, but also throwing away the capacity to truly understand topics in ways that contribute to our humanity.

Deeper is Better

Life in the 21st Century is an open-book exam. No longer is it necessary to memorize whole pieces of source material because we're so accustomed to having technology like Google do most of the heavy-lifting for us.

Whereas a century ago a researcher on Rennaissance Art would have to have access to a solid reference library and be duly qualified (if not an expert) in the topic to hunt down and locate the relevant works necessary to write something authoritative on the topic, nowadays a few keystrokes can lead us right to the material we need.

This material is often re-packaged (a là Wikipedia) in a digestible, easy-to-read format that is immensely cite-able, making a degree in the topic unnecessary to sound convincing. Why bother to adequately learn something when someone's already done all the messy work for you, right? Now there's more time to check your email and see if Tara is available to hit the bar tonight.

Sure, knowing that the Battle of the Somme occurred in 1916 isn't really an important fact on its own, but it is only the tip of the knowledge iceberg: the beginning of a greater understanding of the event, its context and its consequences suspended within a vast network of information.

Those consequences include the fact that on the first day of that battle (July 1), nearly 20,000 young men fighting with the British (including Canadians and Newfoundlanders) lost their lives. Knowing that tens of thousands met their early demise in one brutal, 24-hour span is the sort of fact that makes it easier to appreciate and empathize with intense pacifists, or those soldiers who vow to Remember so that nothing on the scale of the World Wars ever happens again.

But things can go even deeper than that - the knowledge that almost 1.5 million people lost their lives over the months of that battle can also aid in the appreciation of the social, political and economic character of nations where young men from small towns joined up enthusiastically for a war they figured would be over by Christmas.

The date of the battle could be referred to with a quick check of Wikipedia, but a proper appreciation of the event's depth cannot similarly be gleaned by reading headlines - thought and contemplation have to have a place in there too, and that takes time.

Toll on Democratic Debate

Why is all of this important? I guess the long view suggests that it isn't; we humans will adapt to this change in our mental environment like we have many times before. But I'd ask you to consider, as a single example, the toll that a deterioration in the knowledge-base of society would have on the already awful quality of debates on public issues in democracies.

As it is, people are contented with meaningless info-graphics in USA Today that help frame important issues like health-care reform, or are unable to navigate the complexities of public policy issues like electoral reform.

Some experts on political behaviour may argue otherwise, but I feel that its this lack of a deep enough understanding of public policy issues has contributed to declines in electoral participation and involvement in government among its citizens.

As it is, according to a 2008 poll by Ipsos Reid, a majority of Canadians think that our Prime Minister is elected directly by voters, like the President is in the United States.

Information about our parliamentary system already seems a less important commodity than knowing who got kicked off the island last night, but imagine what things would be like if we knew even less about more.

Michael Borrelli is a social researcher living with his family in Hamilton's North End. He tweets @BaysideBadger.


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By ap4413 (registered) | Posted September 11, 2009 at 15:09:45

I think this has captured one half of a trend. But in contrast I see a lot of individuals who are becoming increasingly specialized. The article touches on this "Sure, there is a trade-off when it comes to learning, and someone who knows too much about one topic at the expense of others (think your prototypical egghead) is as impoverished as someone who knows nothing at all." From what I can see society is increasingly moving in two competing directions. Some people are becoming more and more specialized at the expensive of general knowledge while others are becoming generalists who lack a detailed understanding of issues.

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By beasleyfireworkstechnician (anonymous) | Posted September 13, 2009 at 10:07:45

From a getting-things-done-by-groups persepective, doesn't this just mean that we need to work harder to make sure that our groups have a stronger balanece of both nerds and info-grazers?

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted September 14, 2009 at 09:44:45

I would say to both comments that balance is key, and that seems to be what is severely lacking in our approaches to knowledge--we're actively creating expert-autistics and encouraging everyone else to just go with the (information) flow, which increasingly means consuming without learning.

Two interesting things you might want to check out:

1) A BC program that has students follow one major topic through their whole public-school career (I can't find a link right now--I heard the story on CBC Radio on Friday. But if I find a link I'll post it).

2) An essay in this weekend's Globe that is a more economistic approach to the ideas I explored above:

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