Mistaking Ignorance for Wisdom

Professor Neil Postman

The internet of things had not arrived when NYU professor Neil Postman wrote his 1985 critique of television and its effects on society. I suspect the concerns and predictions he made in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” would have not differed greatly had he seen what was to come by 2014. Meaningful intellectual and political discourse in America has been eclipsed by technologies that actively discourage acquiring personal knowledge in depth and erode skills of critical thinking.

Though the internet has made more information available to more people more easily than any other technology in history, its discontinuous nature, lack of surrounding context and ease of use has altered the ways in which we think. Postman would aver that television set the stage for the internet; television primarily provides entertainment, segmented into short bursts separated by commercial messages. A proliferation of “channels” keeps people “clicking” between programs. We can see this format now coming to dominate the internet, where “channels” are frequently used and television content is widely available. Internet “news” sources have also been fully commercialized, using technology to track viewing habits and thereby present ads associated with such habits. In the prophetic words of Michel Foucault, people have become “calculable units.”

If information were the secret to solving the world’s problems, they’d have been solved by now. It’s not information that’s key, it’s our ability to differentiate good information from bad, determine which information is relevant to solving a particular problem, asking the right questions, evaluating the answers and applying the right solutions. Success in problem solving is not about what we know, but how we work with what we know; unfortunately critical thinking is in short supply. Like so much in current culture – money, possessions, music and so forth – we are transfixed and entertained by the enormous volume of information available to us, but at a loss in how to use it for the good of society.

We certainly don’t devote much in the way of resources to discussing anything in depth. Television news programming mostly consists of wire-service stories about events in far-flung places for which we have no solutions and no personal actions we can take. In any event, these successive stories use an average of 45-seconds each, followed quickly by commercials featuring mucus creatures, chicken tacos and expensive autos. Public television offers some discussion, but is watched by a tiny minority of the public. Newspapers are scarcely better. Internet users can find articles in depth, but research shows users gravitate to websites which only reflect their own points of view, producing an echo-chamber of self-reinforcing opinion. In short, we have been trained to ignore complexity and pay attention to headlines, gossip and trivia.

The world has many serious problems of great complexity and if we have any chance to solve them it will require serious people doing some serious thinking. Rarely do we question the value or possible negative effects of new technologies before we adopt them; our entrepreneurial culture enthusiastically supports new technologies even if there is no problem they solve.

“Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world,” said Postman, and continued, “We are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *