As usual, Beemer had an interesting response to my last post. I was going to respond on LiveJournal, but decided to use my privileged position on the blog itself. Bwa ha ha ha. More people read it this way. Yeah. Not that readership matters. Because I’m more interested in the discussion. But if more people see it, then there’s more likely to be discussion. Yeah! Um. Anyway.
Three things to follow up on.
- Text, as Beemer points out, is a great medium because it is random access and low-bandwidth. However, I wonder if this is known to be the advantage that we think it is. I think Beemer and I have both read so much, in so many forms, that we have the trick of using text as a random access, low-bandwidth medium. It’s unclear to me that others know that trick. Many people, when confronted with a lot of text, just give up, rather than quickly scan through it to determine if there is anything of interest. Including me. I just downloaded a 15-page paper off the net on the theory that I’ll read it later. Which won’t happen. But I think that this lack of text-parsing ability may relate to the complaint I opened my last post with, which wondered why many people just give up when confronted with my long posts. So this text-parsing may be a skill worth thinking about, and eventually teaching, in addition to the critical thinking skill of parsing multiple sources of input.
- Speaking of which, in that post I was thinking of input in terms of text and alternate news streams, but I think it applies more broadly. While I was home at my parents’ house, I was watching football, bouncing back and forth between two games, a skill which I’ve pretty much mastered at home using my picture-in-picture TV, but which was a bit trickier with only the “Last” button. My mom got annoyed and told me to pick one. I realized that the skill to handle multiple streams of input may be just as applicable in video or audio. And I’m not particularly good at it. I know people who are more habituated to TV who can have the TV on in the background while reading and listening to the radio, and still notice when something interesting happens. I think the generation of kids today is one step beyond with their ability to juggle video games on top of all that. It’s a multi-modal environment, and developing the skills to handle that is just a matter of growing up in that environment, I think.
- Lastly, I wanted to follow up on Beemer’s information carnivore observations. I had actually intended some of those analogies, but hadn’t made the connection explicitly in the post. Part of the analogy is the greater efficiency in being higher up the food chain. Carnivores need to eat less often than herbivores. And he also observes the downside – a carnivore is exposed to greater concentrations of toxins. As far as the information carnivore goes, the greater efficiency of using secondary sources is necessary because otherwise the vast amount of information out there would overwhelm us. However, we are susceptible to greater concentrations of toxins, by which I mean biases and inaccuracies. At each level of the information food chain, there is a selection process. By the time it gets to, say, Rush Limbaugh, the “news” has been consistently slanted to the right so many times that it may hardly resemble the original story. I think the term information carnivore sums up these advantages and dangers concisely, and reminds us that we are dependent on others for processing information, thus reminding us of the biases and inaccuracies that may be built up by the time a story reaches us.
It also reminds us that we stand at the top of an information pyramid. With the advantage that, if we choose to move lower down the chain, we can. We can open up the black boxes, find the original sources, do our own data compression, and determine whether it matches the summary that we were given. Obviously, we won’t choose to do this often because it requires a lot of time and effort, but it’s probably worth doing a couple times to find “information herbivores” that process data and stories into the form that we want. A simple example is finding a movie critic that we like. When confronted with a new critic, we read their reviews of movies that we’ve seen. We evaluate his opinion, compare it to our own, and when we find a critic that often matches our tastes, we begin to use their reviews to guide us in deciding which movies to see. Do the same thing for books, for products, for groceries, for news, etc., and you begin to see the information carnivore ecology at work.