Information carnivore

Sometimes posts start with no more than a good post title. Like this one. Actually, okay, this post started with some thoughts I’ve been having about different ways of perceiving and handling information. It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while. In fact, one of my first rants on this blog concerned the subject.

One of the things the concerns me with this blog is that a lot of people I know don’t read it because my posts are too long. Part of the length is due to my lack of editing, to be sure. Part of it, though, is because I feel that these are relatively complex issues that I’m tangling with, and that it takes time to take them out, look at them, see them from a couple different perspectives, and decide what I think. It worries me that America seems to be moving towards the soundbite society, where we want simple answers that can be conveyed in a few seconds, where we don’t have to pay too much attention. To some extent, I think that this last presidential election was a signal that the American public has chosen simplicity, even if wrong, over acknowledging the complexity of the world.

But I don’t want to get distracted by politics here. Let’s get back to information modes. One of the other realizations I had recently is that I am a product of a narrow slice in time. My preferred mode of information consumption is the printed word (or the word on screen). I am pretty adept at scanning web pages or books to extract the information I’m looking for. I can handle multiple sources of information, evaluate them and make my own decision as to which source I believe. Part of where I was going with the critical thinking section of my new directions post was trying to figure out how to teach this skill to others.

But what if the need for this skill is just because of this temporary phase that we’re in, where information is stuck in a text format? I was surprised to learn of the rise of podcasting, because I dislike audio information transfer so much. But for others, it makes sense. And, as video and other multimedia editing tools become more powerful and common, that will start to dominate text, I’m sure. And people like me that grew up with text and are comfortable with it as a primary medium will slowly get passed by as outmoded. It’s already starting to happen; on sports sites that I visit like ESPN, a good portion of content is being delivered in video rather than text, which drives me nuts.

So I wonder if the need for my skill of sifting through large amounts of text is one that is soon-to-be (or already?) outmoded. There’s been this eight year run or so where the World Wide Web made everything available in text, and really made having such a skill valuable. But soon it’s going to go be only relevant to those of us that read books. Is there really value here, or do I just think it’s valuable because, well, I do it? Am I already doomed to the long slow decline of technical obsolescence that Douglas Adams describes for those over 30?

However, there’s a related skill that I think will continue to be useful. The term I came up with this morning (and the one that inspired me writing a post at all because it made a good post title) was being an “information carnivore”. It’s taking information that others have already processed and finding ways to use it. I’m not much of one for primary sources. The amount of effort it takes to learn the specialized language of Derrida or Foucault is just not worth it to me to find out what they say. So I read secondary summaries, whether in books or online, synthesize them, and extract information for myself, consulting the primary sources as necessary to elaborate upon a point.

My new directions post included a section on thinking about helping teach others the critical thinking skills necessary to be an “information carnivore”. I haven’t really thought through the details yet. Beemer made an interesting comment, suggesting that the way to teach people the way to do something is to put them in a situation where they need it. Offhand, one way of doing that would be to get away from the teacher in a classroom being a voice of authority, and more towards a discussion leader. Provide alternative viewpoints, including mutually exclusive ones, and require students to determine which viewpoint to believe by taking into account other information sources. Grade them on their ability to make a good case for their viewpoint, not necessarily on having the “right” answer.

This wasn’t as coherent as I thought it would be when I started, partially because I’m distracted by writing this as I’m watching football on Christmas afternoon (yes, I’ve finally found a way to combine my hobbies). I’ll post what I have, and think about it some more. Comments welcome, as always.

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