The Adolescent Age of Information

the brain with a matrix-style overlayIt might seem like the Information Age has been fatally corrupted with the election of our current POTUS, but I’m here to say that even though we have taken a few (okay, several) steps back, the work is far from over, and the future remains bright. What we as a culture suffer from now is the inability to deal rationally with the trove of data that is released upon us at every moment of our waking lives. Like children struggling to navigate the new responsibilities of independence, we have not yet figured out how to regulate our impulses in favor of deliberation and sound judgment. We give in to spontaneous reactions to “breaking” news without having all the facts, then vehemently defend our ill-conceived opinions due to the devastating effect admitting a mistake would have on our pride and self-perceived identity. Plus, it’s just easier to lump every headline under umbrella categories for which we’ve already formed opinions. And while there is no stopping the information (short of self-quarantine, which I do endorse in regular doses), we will get better at processing and evaluating what we hear. We will adapt. Reading and learning is hard. As adults, we are (will be) more willing to take on the challenge.

If this sounds like a problem we have faced all throughout history, it is. We humans have always been a gullible folk, and we believe whatever is easiest to believe. The difference today is the pace at which we encounter new information. Instantaneous global communication has created such an anxiety that careful consideration seems antiquated. Pause is no longer efficient, there’s just too much to take in. And, by the way, this is a problem for people at both ends of the spectrum of impressionability – those who don’t believe anything, and those who too willingly believe everything. Neither group has a healthy relationship with truth, although at least they are easy to spot, each often castigating the other for their polarity. We would do well to avoid both.

What you know best becomes what you know to be the best. Maturity has never been easy and won’t be now. Beliefs and opinions are often dependent upon incidence by default, and this bias is extremely difficult to overcome. You are very likely to identify with the political party and the religious denomination of your parents because you’ve had more exposure to those ideas than any others. This is already well-known to be true in the general terms of politics and religion, but what about more nuanced categories, such as science, media, education? Your level of exposure to an issue has enormous bearing on your ability to decipher the news and filter the fake from the real. If you have limited knowledge about a topic, your natural inclination is to find some association with knowledge you do have, basing your judgment on a larger theme of discourse. This coping mechanism is not without merit, for our understanding of one realm does and should inform our understanding of another. However, we should be sure to appreciate complexity and the consequence of unique variables. And now more than ever, we have access to the tools necessary for objective judgment. Listen to those who spend their lives working on an issue, look for consensus, and be willing to admit ignorance.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. This brings me to a primary lesson I keep coming back to in my studies: humility.  It takes far more courage to admit when knowledge is lacking than to scream in protest when your stance is contested. We just haven’t yet found the courage to learn rather than scream. This makes our present situation all the more difficult, but we’ll get there. Slowly, perhaps painfully, knowledge will eventually win out. It always does.