Information fanaticism

On finding alternative sources of news in the pre-web era (this quote comes from ~1992):

The information is there, but it’s there to a fanatic, you know, somebody wants to spend a substantial part of their time and energy exploring it and comparing today’s lies with yesterday’s leaks and so on. That’s a research job and it just simply doesn’t make sense to ask the general population to dedicate themselves to this task on every issue.


Very few people are going to have the time or the energy or the commitment to carry out the constant battle that’s required to get outside of MacNeil/Lehrer or Dan Rather or somebody like that. The easy thing to do, you know — you come home from work, you’re tired, you’ve had a busy day, you’re not going to spend the evening carrying on a research project, so you turn on the tube and say, “it’s probably right”, or you look at the headlines in the paper, and then you watch the sports or something.

That’s basically the way the system of indoctrination works. Sure, the other stuff is there, but you’re going to have to work to find it.

The above quote was from an interview captured in the film, Manufacturing Consent, with MIT professor and political writer Noam Chomsky.

It’s amazing how technology can make dramatic changes over the course of just ~20 years. WordPress, Google News, Wikipedia, RSS/Atom, Twitter, Wikileaks. Millions of websites with terabytes of information. It’s still a “research job” to sort through it all, but no longer is accessibility a core problem.

Chomsky was recently interviewed about the purpose of education (you can watch it on here). In it, he calls widespread Internet technology a “hammer” — a tool you can use to build great things or cause great injuries (possibly, to yourself). He believes education is key to using the Internet for its positive qualities. He states:

The Internet is extremely valuable if you know what you’re looking for. […] If you know what you’re looking for, you have a framework of understanding, which directs you to particular things (and sidelines lots of others). […] Of course, you always have to be willing to ask: “is my framework the right one?” […] But you can’t pursue any kind of inquiry without a relatively clear framework that is directing your search, helping you choose what’s significant, what isn’t, what ought to be put aside, what ought to be pursued, and so on.

You can’t expect someone to become a biologist, say, by giving them access to Harvard University’s Biology library, and saying, “Have at it!” The Internet is the same, except magnified enormously.

If you don’t understand or know what you’re looking for — if you don’t have some conception of what matters, always, of course, with the proviso that you’re willing to question it if it seems to be going in the wrong direction — then exploring the Internet is just picking out random factoids that don’t mean anything.

Behind any significant use of contemporary technology — the Internet, communication systems, graphics, whatever it might be — there must be some well-constructed, directive, conceptual apparatus, otherwise it is very unlikely to be helpful; in fact, it may turn out to be harmful.

Random exploration through the Internet turns out to be a cult-generator. Pick a factoid here, a factoid there, and somebody else re-inforces it, and all of the sudden you have some crazed picture with some factual basis, but nothing to do with the world. You have to know how to evaluate, interpret, and understand.

Cultivating that capacity — to seek what’s significant, always willing to question whether you’re on the right track — is what education is always going to be about, whether using computers & the Internet, or pencil & paper & books.

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