I’m in one of those phases where I’m reading about six books at once, just grazing through ideas that catch me, diving into chapters out of order, etc. Might be an indication of just how much the online world has affected my reading habits. Sometimes I feel like my brain starts to twitch if I turn too many pages in a row. Sometimes.
Anyway, picked up True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo and got pulled in right away. The thesis here is that Stephen Colbert’s idea of “truthiness” isn’t that far off, that “new technologies are promoting the cultural ascendancy of belief over fact.” (Does that scare you as much as it does me?) Manjoo, a blogger at Salon, dives into the whole “Swift Boat” story at the outset, and he provides some really fascinating research that suggests that liberals and conservatives have very different tendencies when it comes to believing what they see and hear. (The short version: conservatives are much more willing to consume media that “toes the ideological line” (19), and they are more apt to “steer clear of information that contradicts what [they] think [they] know” (30). Guess you’ll believe that if you want to, huh?)
For as much as I love what’s happening now in terms of our ability to produce and share information, I keep reminding myself to pay good attention to the huge challenges here as well. As Manjoo says,
While new technology eases connections between people, it also, paradoxically, facilitates a closeted view of the world, keeping us coiled tightly with those that share our ideas.
Nothing really new in that statement; we talk about the echo chamber all the time. But the stories he tells here are on some level pretty scary in terms of the much more entrenching impact the chamber has on us all, and I have to say the challenges we face as educators to prepare our kids for it all feel really daunting.
Anyway, to the money quote, so far at least. While Manjoo discusses the reams of research that suggest that our own ideas of truth are defined through our interactions with other people, what’s interesting is the role that physical proximity, or propinquity has played in those interactions. We become friends with, and in large measure, marry people who at some point share our physical space, whether in an office or an apartment building or even classroom. But now, the fact that these technologies are freeing us from propinquity is what we find to be so exhilarating about it. And, what is so problematic about it.
The Web, talk radio, cable news–they connect us to others who are like us but are far away. They provide a haven from the oppressiveness of the nearby. Instead of getting together with people who are close to us physically, now we can get together with people who are close to us ideologically, psychically, emotionally, aesthetically. In other words, rather than through propinquity, we find our social groups nowadays through selective exposure. And it’s in that fact that the world splits apart: it’s here that you see why new possibilities to choose what you read, what you watch, and what you listen to can fracture the culture’s sense of what’s real and what’s not. Selective exposure is not important only because it lets you choose the information that suits you; it’s important because it lets you choose people who suit you (54).
A lot of this connects directly with what Ulises Mejias has been saying in terms of how our concepts of nearness and farness are changing. Both point to something that is obviously worth our attention as educators. It’s a huge shift that has huge ramifications, and it’s not hard to see a number of examples playing out in this current election cycle. The “debate” about human activity contributing to global warming is a great example. The truth is there, if we want to believe it, yet it feels like a whole heck of a lot of people choose not to.
So, how do we guard ourselves against the real dangers of “selective exposure?” And, more importantly, how do we address these issues as a part of the the literacies we teach our kids in the curriculum so they can accurately assess what is real and what is not?
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