Which is stronger: information or ignorance?

Over at the Times‘s site, I contribute to a new “Room for Debate” discussion, “Reading More but Learning Less?,” on this question:

In the Web 2.0 age, when many Americans see hundreds of articles every day, are we more informed than previous generations were?

There’s not a whole lot of disagreement among the six contributors. In fact, the pieces seem more like variations on a theme, the theme being something like this: A poorly informed electorate is a cultural problem, and trying to apply a technological solution to it doesn’t seem to do all that much good. The point is made most eloquently, I think, by the historian Melvyn Dubofsky, who provides a glimpse into some of the decidedly low-tech, but nonetheless effective, forms of “social networking” that prevailed in the early years of the twentieth century:

A century ago nearly every city, town, and village had a lyceum or other venue in which visiting speakers regaled packed auditoriums with lectures on popular and abstruse subjects. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, a poor, largely East European Jewish neighborhood, the local Labor Lyceum scheduled talks on Marxism, socialism, anarchism, evolution, and religion as well as performances by talented musicians …

Such venues existed even in such far off places as Lead, S.D., Butte, Mont., and Cripple Creek, Colo., often in conjunction with local trade unions or labor and/or socialist parties. In unionized cigar-making factories in Tampa, Fla. and New York City, lectors, or readers, sat on high stools reading Shakespeare, Marx, Engels, Darwin, Hugo, Balzac, and Tolstoy as cigar rollers performed their skilled work.

When we define the effectiveness of information distribution in terms of its “scale,” we may be looking at the wrong thing.

Here’s a bit from my contribution:

It’s a fallacy to believe that dispensing more information more quickly will, in itself, raise the general level of public awareness. To be informed, a person has to want to be informed, and the percentage of Americans demonstrating such motivation seems to have remained pretty stable, and pretty abysmal, throughout our vaunted information age.

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

6 Responses to Which is stronger: information or ignorance?

  1. Mark

    “To be informed, a person has to want to be informed, and the percentage of Americans demonstrating such motivation seems to have remained pretty stable, and pretty abysmal…” I disagree. In regards to current affairs, many, if not most, Americans hunger to be informed about what is on TV, what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter, and who is dancing with the stars. In regards to voting; how do you think people get off the island?

  2. I agree that simply having more information existing does not improve things, but it’s too easy to fall back on moralizing and pundit blaming-the-victim cliches. It’s about the entire media system, and what it values, which is in part a public-policy question. I understand you had little space, but I wish that part of the problem had been stressed more.

  3. Mark

    Seth, I am having a difficult time making sense of your post. Starting from the end where you state, “…I wish that part of the problem had been stressed more.” I have to ask myself what problem you are referring to. I think you are referring to the problem of what the media values. I do not see a problem with what the media values; it values profit. How does this relate to a public-policy question and what do you mean by public-policy? Are you referring to laws that need to be established around what the media does and says? You have not made this clear.

    As for your first sentence; it seems a little cliche.

  4. The statement that “A poorly informed electorate is a cultural problem, and trying to apply a technological solution to it doesn’t seem to do all that much good” is pretty divergent from the title of the post, namely, “Which is stronger, information or ignorance?” Obviously, the sort of question posed shapes the answers obtained. Without delving into the article of faith that an informed public leads to improved civic participation, presumably better voting and thus better government, I must agree that it’s not so much that the public is ignorant (which it certainly is) as that our collective attention is directed elsewhere, mostly at entertainment. Even the most heinous abuses of power hardly provoke a twinge unless there is a celebrity personage involve (e.g., someone other than a politician).

    Continuing to turn out nutritious information while tapping new distribution channels is heedless when the real things for which we hunger are sugary treats: sports, celebrity gossip, TV, movies, pop music, etc. Some small subsection of the population still cares about a balanced information diet, but most are content to gobble down the processed McMeals served up by marketers and attention whores. As with food, so, too, with information: you are what you consume. We’re now a nation of obese fluffballs, meaning we have lots of information but don’t know much of anything worth knowing.

  5. Seth Finkelstein

    Mark – where you say – “I do not see a problem with what the media values; it values profit. How does this relate to a public-policy question and what do you mean by public-policy?” – that’s the core point. If the media values profit, and profit is not the ideal value for the electorate, then there is a problem. There are various answers, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time arguing about it. Because the moment someone does advocate anything, there too often a tedious slog about but-that’s-communism, where any deviation from that profit value is denounced as, well, communism (well, “socialism” is more common these says). I just wanted to say for this thread that putting the onus on the ordinary citizen is excusing the powerful.

  6. Mark

    Seth – where you say – “If the media values profit, and profit is not the ideal value for the electorate, then there is a problem.” – I say, ah, gotcha.