I’m in one of those phases where I’m reading about six books at once, just grazing through ideas that catch me, diving into chapters out of order, etc. Might be an indication of just how much the online world has affected my reading habits. Sometimes I feel like my brain starts to twitch if I turn too many pages in a row. Sometimes.
Anyway, picked up True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo and got pulled in right away. The thesis here is that Stephen Colbert’s idea of “truthiness” isn’t that far off, that “new technologies are promoting the cultural ascendancy of belief over fact.” (Does that scare you as much as it does me?) Manjoo, a blogger at Salon, dives into the whole “Swift Boat” story at the outset, and he provides some really fascinating research that suggests that liberals and conservatives have very different tendencies when it comes to believing what they see and hear. (The short version: conservatives are much more willing to consume media that “toes the ideological line” (19), and they are more apt to “steer clear of information that contradicts what [they] think [they] know” (30). Guess you’ll believe that if you want to, huh?)
For as much as I love what’s happening now in terms of our ability to produce and share information, I keep reminding myself to pay good attention to the huge challenges here as well. As Manjoo says,
While new technology eases connections between people, it also, paradoxically, facilitates a closeted view of the world, keeping us coiled tightly with those that share our ideas.
Nothing really new in that statement; we talk about the echo chamber all the time. But the stories he tells here are on some level pretty scary in terms of the much more entrenching impact the chamber has on us all, and I have to say the challenges we face as educators to prepare our kids for it all feel really daunting.
Anyway, to the money quote, so far at least. While Manjoo discusses the reams of research that suggest that our own ideas of truth are defined through our interactions with other people, what’s interesting is the role that physical proximity, or propinquity has played in those interactions. We become friends with, and in large measure, marry people who at some point share our physical space, whether in an office or an apartment building or even classroom. But now, the fact that these technologies are freeing us from propinquity is what we find to be so exhilarating about it. And, what is so problematic about it.
The Web, talk radio, cable news–they connect us to others who are like us but are far away. They provide a haven from the oppressiveness of the nearby. Instead of getting together with people who are close to us physically, now we can get together with people who are close to us ideologically, psychically, emotionally, aesthetically. In other words, rather than through propinquity, we find our social groups nowadays through selective exposure. And it’s in that fact that the world splits apart: it’s here that you see why new possibilities to choose what you read, what you watch, and what you listen to can fracture the culture’s sense of what’s real and what’s not. Selective exposure is not important only because it lets you choose the information that suits you; it’s important because it lets you choose people who suit you (54).
A lot of this connects directly with what Ulises Mejias has been saying in terms of how our concepts of nearness and farness are changing. Both point to something that is obviously worth our attention as educators. It’s a huge shift that has huge ramifications, and it’s not hard to see a number of examples playing out in this current election cycle. The “debate” about human activity contributing to global warming is a great example. The truth is there, if we want to believe it, yet it feels like a whole heck of a lot of people choose not to.
So, how do we guard ourselves against the real dangers of “selective exposure?” And, more importantly, how do we address these issues as a part of the the literacies we teach our kids in the curriculum so they can accurately assess what is real and what is not?
Jarrod Martin says
Will, thank you for addressing this issue. My students are already very skeptical about the information they find on the internet. In fact, I believe they are developing a definite bias against any idea that does not originate from within their trusted relationships. They only connect with ideas that they already believe.
Consequently, it is very hard to convince them that anything is true. As educators, it will be our greatest challenge in the coming years to help students create wisdom from the mountains of information they will be exposed to.
The answer: teachers must understand that becoming trustworthy is more important than writing lesson plans. As Web 2.0 continues to expand into education, teachers will only become more important. Not as sole carriers of the truth, but as trusted guides to help students ask the best questions.
Sue Wargo says
it’s interesting that your students feel that way. My students (jr hi & high school) both approach research with a blithe belief that if it’s on the Internet … it must be true. Many of the teachers I work with also put little time or effort into checking sources for authority or accuracy. IT drives me crazy. I would much rather have a wariness and use it to teach, than work where everyone thinks that Google provides them with access to truth.
Jarrod Martin says
I didn’t say my students didn’t use whatever they find! I think the reason they use the first thing they find, or the thing that they agree with most — they don’t think it matters. Anything they can find is fair game because it’s ALL opinion and no one can really tell what is good/true anyway.
What’s the difference between the first lie I find on Google and the one that takes me hours to find?
How do you handle irresponsible research? I try to check sources on research papers by typing selections that sound “copied” into Google. But if a student is “good” the words can be changed enough to trick that method.
A. T. Wyatt says
This is rather interesting, because I recently attended a presentation by a marketing guru who told the audience that the “new” marketing strategies were abandoning click-through adverts, etc., and instead setting up a trusted relationship with existing or prospective customers. In other words, the ad wasn’t “Buy this” but, “Do you have this problem? We can help”. The examples, cited as successful, were a bit like infomercials, but cloaked with an altruistic veneer. (That said, maybe it wasn’t a veneer, but I have to admit that I tend to be skeptical of a for-profit enterprise.)
The speaker also emphasized heavily the idea that as consumers, we were far more likely to purchase items that were recommended to us by our friends. Witness Beacon and Facebook. I think Beacon went too far with the stealth mode and was rightly flamed, but Amazon pulls this off successfully with its consumer ratings and reviews (which is entirely voluntary). You even get extra credibility if you check the box “I actually purchased this product” and “I am reviewing under my real name”.
I think these trends are become very pervasive because it is extremely difficulty to separate the agendas, particularly on the internet where “free” almost always indicates some type of trade-off, whether or not you were aware of it.
Benjamin Baxter says
Charlie A. Roy says
In a culture where technology turns nearness and farness on its head the value of the personal relationship built on trust will become more important. One’s ability as Daniel Pink would say in “A Whole New Mind” will become a 21st century skill.
On the issue of truth we all know we crave it. Those who argue there is no truth are essentially arguing that is is true that nothing is true. Now think about that. Do you see the contradiction. We all like relativism when it suits us but the objectivity of truth cannot be avoided.
We are all seeking truth regarding the questions of core meaning to our lives.
Carl Anderson says
WARNING!!! Wild and crazy free thinking and speculation follows:
This idea/trend in finding relationships and associations with like-minded people online instead of forming proximal relationships has been on my mind for quite some time now. It first came to my attention when I was an undergrad in the 90s as a computer science student. I left that field of study because I was seeing my classmates take more interest in the people they met on IRC than the people they dealt with face to face. This frightened me enough to drop my major and take up art education. It then came to my attention again two years ago when working in an urban alternative school. The students there were for the most part what we would classify as representatives of many different fringe subcultures that were largely socially isolated in the mainstream classrooms at the “normal” high school. These students did not appear to suffer from social isolation the way similar students when I went to school did. They all had their own online social groups where they formed relationships with like-minded people.
These observations that I once was concerned about now make me curious. What will the future look like if and when this structure of socialization continues to grow and evolve? Nearly every major institution (formal and informal) in our society is in some degree based on relationships. I think it is conceivable that government will evolve to be less about physical borders and more about ideological borders. There could be entirely separate laws governing the behaviors of people from different ideological social groups. The laws that apply to your physical neighbors might not be the same laws that apply to you. Public resources might be public only to those who belong to the group that provides them. We could see a whole different type of segregation evolve based on ones ideological affiliations. We will see multiple truths depending on what ideology you ascribe to. Truth could become more like religious doctrine but for various secular groups as well as religious (Ideological Denomination?).
Such a shift is a change for sure. Change is something we almost always fear. Will such a future be better or worse than the one we currently have? Only time will tell if changes that are brought on by this shift will be good fortune or bad fortune. In some ways, this world of “truthiness” actually sounds more democratic and progressive. It recognizes the fact that truth changes depending on your own personal world view and it allows subcultures to thrive giving diversity to the public discourse that would otherwise gone silenced. It is definitely more multicultural and allows us to have our cake and eat it too.
Disclaimer: The thoughts expressed here in this comment on Will’s blog are entirely those of one hemisphere of my brain and do not necessarily represent the thoughts and beliefs of my mind and self as a whole, it’s management or staff.
Tim Lauer says
Not sure if you saw Steven Johnson’s response to Farhad Manjoo…
Will Richardson says
Thanks, Tim. I hadn’t seen that. The continued back and forth between the two of them models some great process of parsing and arguing information.
Nate Stearns says
I’ve been reading the same book and it’s made me uncomfortable because I know it’s true. When I read HuffPost or Slate or TalkingPointsMemo…it feels just so right. And when I try to read RW bloggers like Instapundit or Captain’s Quarter’s, it is unpleasant. But, I know, that it’s in my best interest to read ideas and opinions different from my own. And not just a little different. I should grab from people who aren’t liberal technophile pro-education types. Moroccan lawyers, Christian Fundamentalist chemists, long dead anarchists…
Is there a way to configure a RSS system to find and subscribe to packs of feeds that create that balanced set of voices instead of succumbing to the echo chamber?
Funny that you would, in your response, state – ” itâ€™s made me uncomfortable because I know itâ€™s true”. Just because a guy wrote a book about a topic and it strikes a chord, doesn’t make it true. We have to remember that NOT all conservatives listen to talk radio and watch Fox News and form their opinions and develop their ideologies based on group-think. Just because a hypothesis – and that’s what this discussion is – fits a lot of people and situations doesn’t make it true!
Nate Stearns says
When I said “it’s made me uncomfortable,” I was referring to the fact that I recognize that I am guilty of confirmation bias in how I select media sources. Of course, it’s true that all conservative don’t marinate in group think, but it is true enough for me and my observations (always suspect!) suggest reasonably true for others that it’s very difficult for people to accept ideas that challenge their own.
If you get a chance to read the book, there’s an interesting section on the Dr. Fox effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr_Fox_effect) that suggests teacher enthusiasm trumps teacher content in student surveys of teacher ability. I’m not sure what to do about that little nugget of info.
Jarrod Martin says
Nate, I just read The Likeability Factor by Tim Sanders that used several studies that show students learn more from a teacher they like, not necessarily the one that uses the best methods or knows the most. That is a little disturbing when you consider that we focus so much of our energy on the delivery of our content verses the relationships we build with students and parents.
This topic interests me from a personal level as I have met a number of people who have formed relationships online with members of the opposite sex from distant places and sometimes divergent cultures. Some have married based on these relationships. Others have had hopes dashed after finding out that pictures can be historic and facts distorted. One person close to me has had a very extensive writing and talking relationship with a woman from a country where women are known to seek U.S. citizenry and support. Her pictures show a beauty that belies single status, yet he is sure she is what she purports to be. He believes she is his “soul mate” but has never met her!
Should he now spend thousands of dollars to travel half way around the world to meet her? What are his chances of his beliefs matching the facts?
The dating game wherein people are “vetted” online before sharing LEVELS of personal contact seems to fit this topic and the quote  in your post, especially since the opportunity for fraudulent information being used to form relationships means that any student or child needs to be taught how to manage the idea of belief vs. fact when establishing relationships of a personal nature in the new world of “selective exposure”.
This is a deep issue, and I will check out this book!
Thanks Will for the reference.
Carolyn Foote says
Just pondering what we can “do” in regards to this for our students–both as educators and parents.
I think we have to balance this theory with the truth that for most of us, we also have f2f communities that aren’t necessarily completely by choice, and will continue to have those for the foreseeable future, so there is a balance to the self-selected communities.
And it’s interesting, because on the one hand you have the proliferation of blogs and cable channels that are clearly “selective exposure” while on the other hand, you have the standardization of content by homogenized, same in every city, shopping centers, bookstore conglomerates, chain restaurants, etc. So on the one hand, there is increasing individualization and compartmentalization, and on the other hand, decreasing choice.
That being said–I do think we can model divergent thinking for our students.
Socratic discusssions in class?
Asking our students to counterbalance their research with a news source from another country?
Requiring them to find one opposing source to their own?
I do think this is an issue educators “outside the echo chamber” are tuning into somewhat–I frequently hear concerns about students isolated behind their ipods, facebook communities, etc., so at some level, it seems this is on the radar for people.
Perhaps that is one advantage of f2f schools–it does cause all of us to interact with a variety of viewpoints!
A true search for “truth” should often be work… considering all possibilities, all viewpoints, all facts, discrediting faulty information, faulty logic,… I hope that in this Internet age, this Wikipedia age, this blogging age, that we don’t lose sight of this. Truth is often not as easy as being a few clicks away as many kids would like to believe. However, it has made it very convenient to find facts and debunk myths give the appropriate digital literacy skills.
I don’t think your statement, “The truth is there if we want to believe it” is exempt from these things that are required in the search for truth.
Joel Backon says
This is a complicated issue as illustrated by the length of Will’s post, his discomfort with the key concept, and the number of responses. The subject has been discussed extensively by David Weinberger and is a major theme in the cult film, “What the Bleep Do We Know?”
Okay, let’s unpack Manjoo’s basic notion: “new technologies are promoting the cultural ascendancy of belief over fact.” Not true. Technologies don’t promote anything. They are value-neutral. It is our use of the technologies that is creating a return to a world before “the Scientific Revolution. I wouldn’t argue there is no such thing as truth, but most conversations and exchanges are about finding an explanation that best fits our own experience and values (similar to the Classical Greeks in the Agora). The Internet provides the potential to understand every other point of view on a given issue, if we choose to. The real difference today is that issues we have come to accept as being part of “science” or a body of truths are now being challenged by those who prefer to believe an alternative explanation.
Perhaps that’s acceptable. Quantum Physics challenged Newtonian Physics with respect to whether the latter was a complete explanation of matter and motion. The fathers of Quantum Theory such as Heisenberg and Einstein tell us that matter and motion are really about probabilities, not certainties. Perhaps we need to rethink knowledge, and as Weinberger notes in his latest book, “Everything is Miscellaneous,” technology may have much to do with the motivation to reexamine what we think is real and what is belief. Perception is everything. If that scares Will and others, then we really need to understand why people cling to proximity of experience and belief systems. Then we can redefine our assessment of anything to be “True Enough” or “Good Enough.” There will be less left over in the category of “Truth.”
The irony of all this is the basic premise of digital technology. Binary circuits are about absolutes, on/off, yes/no, true/false. Yet in this new world of true enough, the switch is stuck in the middle most of the time.
I read an article last month called “Change Agents” in the Spring 08 Threshold Magazine sponsored by Cable in the Classroom which addressed the same thinking about the effects of social networks. I had the same feelings of fear after reading that article as what you write about here. In my opinion, we have to be proactive in our understanding of what “smart networking” might bring to the crowd. Yes, it is scary.
What I struggle with is that I’m afraid teachers will not believe what is happening “out there” at the depth you write and read. How could they believe it, it sounds like a science fiction story. Systemically and personally, they seem to be held captive by a culture sunk deep in the cement of Industrial age thinking.
Andrew Hiskens says
At the State Library of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia) we’ve just launched a website called ‘ergo’ for secondary students which looks in part at research skills. The section on selecting resources is particularly useful in this regard, dealing with issues around questioning the text, identifying bias, and evaluating the resources. See http://slv.vic.gov.au/ergo/select_resources.
btw Will – look forward to seeing you in Melbourne on 12 May…