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 The End of Real Knowledge 

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” – Leo Tolstoy


“When I take over the world the first thing I’m going to do is abolish social media,” I announced.

“Yeah, right,” my sister said.

“Not funny!” my niece shouted.

“You can abolish Facebook, but don’t touch my Twitter,” my daughter-in-law warned.

We were joking. Sort of.

It’s depressing. I think of us as a family of book readers, and yet we seem to be spending less and less time reading books. Other than novels, we seem to be doing more and more of our reading online. And the trend in online reading is for shorter and shorter bytes.

I’m all about checking for facts on Wikipedia. I’m happy to read essays and editorials online. And, yes, I spend a minute now and then following friends and family members on social media.

But I don’t fool myself into believing that sort of “reading” is enough.

It is not enough for serious research. It is not enough for gathering news. It is not enough for learning anything worth learning. And it is certainly not enough for discovering any understanding that resembles truth.

“The medium  is the message,” Marshall McLuhan famously told us back in 1964.  And right now, the internet wants messages that are short and sweet.

I was walking with one of my trainers this afternoon, after a tough, 90-minute workout. I try to walk at least a half-hour a day in the sun to refill my Vitamin D tank. We were talking about our favorite political pundits. We listen to most of the same people and so we are equally familiar with their insights and viewpoints. Worse, we know the same facts and data points that these pundits point out.

“Why are you always agreeing with me?” I said.

He knew I was kidding.

But that’s a real concern. When you use search engines and social media to shape your thoughts on topical issues, you are doing the most cursory sort of research. A thesis of 600 to 1,200 words can be persuasively supported by a single fact. And almost any thesis, however absurd, can be cogently argued in essay form. The limited length of the essay format makes that possible.

Neither of those things is true for writing books. Books are long. Instead of jotting down 600 to 1,200 words, the writer must put down a hundred times that many. As someone who’s written several thousand essays and 28 books, I can attest to the fact that it is much more difficult to defend an idea for 350 pages than it is in a page and a half.

The reason for that is that the issues worth writing books about are almost always complex. Complex ideas require complex logical arguments plus facts – lots of facts – to make them persuasive. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started writing a book based on an idea that worked beautifully in essay form, only to see it disintegrate as I got into it.)

If short essays are problematic in this way, so too are short communications of every kind. YouTube and other such digital media are replete with 4- to 6-minute video essays.

Twitter and its cousins feature opinions and statements that can be consumed in seconds, rather than minutes. The game here is to follow your favorite influencers’ briefest quips on some current topic, then read the comments from other followers and maybe post one of your own. This quickly degenerates into the digital equivalent of “playing the dozens,” a competition – engaged in mostly by black males on urban street corners – in which participants go head-to-head with their adversaries by slinging rhyming insults at one another.

At this point, the amount of real knowledge being conveyed is next to nothing.

For too many people these days, these hyper-short communications is the preferred way to get and offer ideas and opinions. And not just ideas and opinions, but also news.

It’s scary to think that people today feel that they get all the information they need to know about any current event through these media.

Not only are they content with such miniscule information, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the depth of knowledge they have and the strength of their views.

If all of this weren’t bad enough, this new fondness for superficial knowledge is aided and abetted by the algorithms these media employ. They have been formulated to make sure users have the enjoyment of seeing their preferences constantly reinforced. If you are on the political right, you will get right-wing news. If you are on the political left, you will get left-wing news.

Pick any hot topic (the coronavirus, the shutdown, the George Floyd killing, for example) and study the news you get compared to the news that someone with different views gets. You will be amazed.

The algorithms compound the true knowledge problem by shielding users from ideas (and even facts) that do not support their prejudices. Users are fed an endless stream of bits and pieces that make it virtually impossible for them to be aware of the complexity of any issue – and this is especially true for the most important issues of the day.

I am not the first essay writer to make this point. I considered writing on it before, but it never felt important to me. I must have had some kind of naïve faith in the intelligence of the individual.

But when I consider that topical conversations have become so void of good thinking, and how the new, briefer media is stimulating the deadly combination of weak ideas and strong feeling, it seems inevitable that we are moving quickly into an era where real knowledge is about as attractive to information consumers as a kale salad.


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