Information Literacy in the Post-Intellectual Era: How Lazy Consumption Changed American Politics and Society Forever
All great calamities in human history were proceeded by campaigns of misinformation, welcome to the next apocalypse.
We’re in the midst of another presidential election cycle in the U.S., what President Obama once eloquently referred to as the political “silly season.” Any historian will tell you that political campaigns in the United States are always built on the manipulation of information, and are now characterized by the sound bite and the latest gotcha distributed by Twitter. As current campaigns have taken advantage of the ubiquitous nature of contemporary communication technology, they have also leveraged the decline in information literacy brought about by lazy consumption.
While politics is a symptom and not the cause of a general degradation in the way society consumes and assigns meaning to information, it does serve as a metaphorical canary in a coal mine, warning us of the possible social dangers that lie ahead.
It may not be the end of the world as we know it, but we do need to consider what is happening around us and why. As an author, educator, and historian, I do have opinions on politics and social issues, but on campus, I try hard to remain neutral, open, and empathetic to all points of view. I want my students to know that their positions on issues are as valid as mine, and my goal is to help students become smart, active, and critical consumers of information, not passive lemmings who are spoon fed single-sourced information and take it as the truth.
The evidence suggests that we’re in an era of post-intellectual lazy consumption, and the ramifications are frightening, both in politics and society in general. Credible science and alt-truth myths are blended, processed, packaged, and narrow-casted to an audience who seldom considers the source or the intention of the message.
For many, absolute truths come in the form of a 280 character limit message on a five-inch screen, and neither Alexa or Siri ever ask if you would like to hear evidence or an opposing point of view.
Because a real understanding of scientific, social, and political truths takes work — that is, one has to check several sources to arrive at an accurate conclusion — it has opened the door to the acceptance of alternative facts and the memes of fake news. Consuming and assigning credibility to the first thing one reads or hears is easy; investigating other points of view is hard. We now consume what we want while ignoring the difficult issues as technology becomes a facilitator for laziness and escapism.
Shortcuts have always been easier than getting real work done, and the evidence of a trend towards the lazy consumption of information is all around. Look at your social media feeds, where every other post is a list; the ten best ways to be productive, the five qualities of leadership, the best way to lose weight. This style of messaging ignores the richness of human variation while categorizing and pre-packaging information into a lazy one size fits all mantra of cultural homogeneity. Closely related is the phrasing such as “lock her up,” “build the wall,” and “make America great again,” which have become comprehensive policy statements that contain all the information needed to form one’s own version of a well-reasoned opinion.
Technology is partly to blame because it has driven the virtualization and abstraction of nearly everything. Bitcoin abstracts money, electricity abstracts the burning of coal used to generate it, and social media abstracts human communication by stripping away the nuances of tonality that create a meta-narrative so vital to complete comprehension. Not only has the context of messaging changed, but so has the exposure, like omnipresent Orwellian telescreens, we now wear and carry always-on information devices that push news around the clock. While the quantity of information we are exposed to has increased exponentially, the education system has devalued the teaching of information-literacy and struggles to find the value of critical thinking skills.
In short, the amount of information that we receive is at an all-time high while our ability to process, discern, and critically consume information is at an all-time low.
While technology contributed to the trend of lazy consumption of information by peppering us with easy to consume emoji-laden soundbite snippets, trends in education have exacerbated the problem. The devaluation of information literacy and critical thinking skills is evidenced by the closing of liberal arts programs in favor of disciplines such as coding and robotics. In the process, students become masters of communicating with machines but not each other. It’s not that we don’t need students in the STEM fields, we do, but we need to maintain a robust curriculum of humanities that teach interpersonal and critical thinking skills.
Literature, history, and philosophy teach the importance of perspective, deference, and critical thinking. The humanities are hard for some because there are no precise answers — the process of thorough analysis and evaluation is not for the lazy, but it creates well-rounded individuals who appreciate diversity and varied points of view. While lazy consumption of information is most pertinent to our current calamities of nationalism and the devaluation of facts, science, and intelligence; lazy consumption of everything from fast food to fast money also contributes to the overall illness and isolation of many.
Are we headed to an inevitable apocalypse? No one knows, but it seems likely. Denial of science, lack of empathy, spoon-fed propaganda, unabashed nationalism, lack of tolerance, fake news, and mainstream acceptance of alternative facts are all evidence of post-intellectualism, and these worrisome trends appear to be well-entrenched. Lazy consumption of information creates a breeding ground in which misinformation thrives, easily swaying the masses, and unless we as a society re-emphasize the importance of a well-rounded education, politicians and monied interests will continue to prey on our naiveté and vulnerability.
Society has changed forever, as it always does during waves of technological adoption. The Telegraph, the railroad, electricity, human flight, the atomic bomb, the Internet, and the cellphone, all had profound effects on the way we live. Technology can be harnessed both for good and evil, the good comes when we understand the ramifications of a given technology, and the evil comes when technological effects catch us off guard.
It is clear that information technology has gotten way ahead of our ability to smartly consume it, and we’re at a dangerous precipice.
Throughout world history, well-informed societies have thrived while those ruled by state-run media or nationalistic misinformation campaigns have inevitably collapsed — usually with significant death and destruction along the way. All of us are guilty of shortcuts and assumptions, but it is more important now than ever that we remain vigilant when it comes to consuming information and that we seek all points of view before forming an opinion.