Friday, September 30, 2011

The Heart of the Problem

Catrin Nye, of the BBC Asian Network, has an interesting background piece on the Internet on today’s BBC News site.  In concerns a study by an independent research group, Demos, that tried to assess the level of trust that current students in the United Kingdom put in the reliability of what they read on the Internet.  The results are, to say the least, mixed and may ultimately involve factors that have nothing to do with what is sometimes called “digital literacy,” the capacity for critical thinking and evaluation applied to any content discovered on the Internet.  Thus, for example, students at school whose student body is predominantly Bangladeshi Muslim appear more inclined to believe conspiracy theory stories involving 9/11 and the death of Osama bin Laden.

It seems to me that the real point behind these results is that the underlying question is not one of being able to distinguish signal from noise on the Internet (or any other media source, for that matter).  It also is not a matter of how well any individual is trained in “critical thinking.”  Rather, it is a matter of recognizing that every individual’s thought processes has a social dimension and that interpersonal communication cannot be achieved without accepting that this dimension plays a critical role.

Jamie Bartlett, a senior research at Demos quoted in this article, probably came close to acknowledging this proposition, even if she only closely grazed it.  She has the last word in Nye’s report with the following quote:

Without a common base of history that we all understand and accept and agree upon it's very hard for people to have a shared understanding of where we are now.

This is one way of recognizing the role of the social dimension;  but that claim about “a common base of history” is probably seriously misguided.  Ultimately, it is the prerequisite for “shared understanding;”  and, as I have previously argued, this tends to be a self-centered framing of the problem of understanding:  You understanding me once you share my point of view.  It is why I have rejected the concept of shared understanding in favor of one of negotiated understanding.  This latter does not require “a common base of history.”  It requires, rather, an awareness of differences in history among those parties trying to achieve understanding, which serves as a platform upon which negotiation over differing worldviews may take place.

In terms of how we use the Internet, we may be dealing with a world in which one man’s signal is another man’s noise.  The problem is that, if both men are locked into their respective signals, they will never communicate.  The question is not one of how we get rid of the noise on the Internet.  Rather, the question will always be what any body of content may actually be trying to tell us and, as a result, how we should respond to such communicating “move” (as Erving Goffman would put it).  This requires considerable mental effort on the part of all communicating, which may be asking too much of a global society whose only commonality has become a tendency towards laziness.

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