Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

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Comfortable with Not Knowing

The logic of willful ignorance outlined in this brief 2016 piece still seems valid today.  It fits our age of like a comfortable bad habit.

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In his sobering and seminal study, Democracy Without Citizens, Robert Entman dwells on the irony of living in an information-rich age among uninformed citizens.  There is a rich paradox to a culture where most have a virtual library available on any digital device, and yet would struggle to pass a third-grade civics test.  According to the Annenberg Policy Center completed a while ago only one in three Americans can name our three branches of government. And only the same lone third could identify the party that controls each of the two houses of Congress.  Fully a fifth of their sample thought that close decisions in the Supreme Court were sent to Congress to be settled.

Add in the dismal results of map literacy tests of high school and college students (“Where is Africa?,”  “Identify your city on this map”), and we have just a few markers of a failed information society.

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                    Pixbay

As Entman noted, “computer and communication technology has enhanced the ability to obtain and transmit information rapidly and accurately,” but “the public’s knowledge of facts or reality have actually deteriorated.”  The result is “more political fantasy and myth transmitted by the very same news media.” We seem to live comfortably without even elementary understandings of the complex world we live in.  The simpler the explanations of complex events, the better.

This condition is sometimes identified as a feature of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a peculiarly distressing form of functional ignorance observed by two Cornell psychologists.  Many of us seem not to be bothered by what we don’t know, overestimating our knowledge.  Dunning and Kruger found that “incompetent” individuals (those falling into the lowest quarter of knowledge on a subject) often failed to recognize their own lack of skill, failed to recognize the extent to which they were misinformed, and did not to accurately gauge the skills of others.  If you have an Aunt Betty who is certain that our former President is a victim of the “deep state” or Hilary Clinton, you have an idea of the willful ignorance this represents.

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                                            Borders of the Unknown

Think of this pattern in an inverted sense: from the perspective of individuals who truly know what they are talking about.  For even the well-informed, the more they know about a subject, the larger the circumference of the borderlands that delineate the unknown.  That’s why those who have mastered a subject area are often the most humble about their expertise: their expanded understanding of a field gives them a sense of what they still don’t know.

The key factor here is our distraction by all forms of media—everything from texting to empty-headed social media rants—that leaves us with little available time to be contributing members of the community.  When the norm is checking our phones over 200 times a day, we have perhaps reached a tipping point where we have no interest in noticing the vast expanses of our own informational black holes.  A familiar fantasy may be enough.

With regard to the basics of membership in a society, the idea of citizenship should mean more.  In the coming election cycle it’s worth remembering that perhaps half of eligible voters will not bother to vote.  And even more will have no interest in learning about the candidates who want to represent them in Congress or their local legislatures.  Worst still, this is all happening at a time when candidates have been captured by a reality-show logic that substitutes melodrama for more sober discussions of how they intend to govern.  Put It altogether, and too many of us don’t notice that we are engrossed with a sideshow of fantasies rather than the main event.

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The costs of cell phone culture

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This was part of an earlier missive entitled “Phone Culture is Making Us Stupid.” The wording may be brash, but no less true. The obvious fact remains that mediated communication leaves us less time to benefit from the advantages of talking face  to face.  If our world of contacts has been enlarged by phone mania, we pay a price for their convenience. And the rise of texting takes it one more step back to messages that carry less information than might have been in a 1940s Telex.  Rich and nuanced?  Hardly.  With texting, everyone has tried to become a master of one-liners: just the reverse of what we need in these complicated times.

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We can all celebrate the expansion of information made possible by the internet.  But there is a price to be paid for total connectivity, especially the portion of it that drops into the black hole of phone culture. The ability to call or receive messages from people we know or public figures we ‘follow’ takes a heavy toll on the energies of addicted users.  It’s becoming a familiar complaint.

Notice what people are doing when they are caught in a pause between activities: maybe waiting for a train, a friend, or the start of a meeting.  They are usually in the thrall of their devices. Any pause in the day must be filled with the search for an incoming distraction. The solitary self is mostly an unwelcome place we would rather not visit. True, a person could be reading a provocative book on their device. But it is far more likely they are cleansing their phone of throwaway messages: thumbing through the detritus of a culture increasingly caught in a web of inconsequential moments.

If the need for personal mobility arises, the protocols of this addiction usually require a device clutched in the right hand, ready to receive an incoming “message.” The left hand is the withering appendage still used to carry whatever else must also come along.

There can be no doubt that a portable phone has all kinds of useful functions for journalists, travelers, business people, and many of the rest of us. But it has become an easy reason to postpone more demanding tasks.  We are too ready to divert our attention to screens of minor delights.  Even counselors and psychotherapists are now advised to tolerate mid-session phone-checking from their younger clients, who now average well over 100 hits a day (Psychotherapy Networker, November, 2018).

Phone culture is too often the cause of a downward spiral where ‘listeners’ no longer hear, observers no longer notice, and the rest of us are immune to knowing what we actually think.

Consider a brief sampling of what this overuse costs us.

–Intrapersonal thought is impaired.  We are not the people we should  be if we don’t consider our actions and decisions.  The work of a fully functioning human includes examining the events and moments in our lives.  Plato’s reminder that “an unexamined life is not worth living” is self-evident. We need time to hear ourselves in order to set our own compass for the days and weeks ahead. While many are proud to cite their devotion to yoga or meditation, the concentration and sustained awareness they can produce used to be a common experience for previous generations. The natural rhythms of the pre-digital world gave individuals a natural window to their consciousness. A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action.

–Time is lost on tasks that could be more innovative, creative and educational.  We seem to turning into the kinds corpulent and devoted spectators that populated Pixar’s prescient WALL-E (2009).  A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action. Since creativity and innovation require sustained attention to a single task, we must nurture the capacity for such linear thinking. How many symphonies would Joseph Haydn have written if his pocket held an iPhone 8?  He wrote over 100 in his lifetime,  but I doubt he would have made it even as far as the Farewell Symphony, Number 45.

–Personal identity that needs to form and evolve is put under siege.  We can easily succumb to the seemingly happier but mostly inflated self-presentations offered by others.  Evidence from recent studies suggests that many adolescents tend to fall into lower levels of self-esteem if they are heavy users of social media. (Journal of Adolescence, August 2016, 41-49). This is probably because online communities like Instagram tend to norm what’s “cool” and what’s not. The resultant checking of self against others drains away the natural impulse to shape one’s identity to passions found in the inner self.

–Real-time contact with others is decreased.  For many of us, rates of daily “screen time” have crept into the eight hour range.  Phones make up about half of that time. Researchers have also documented a disturbing recent trend indicating that middle and high school students are avoiding actual interaction with strangers or adults.  For them, face-time with all but a best friend is stressful.  More perversely, as recently noted, a phone has become its own excuse to not see or connect with another.

These stormy times are as good as any to reconsider what matters. Phone culture is too often the cause of a downward spiral where ‘listeners’ no longer hear, observers no longer notice, and the rest of us are on the verge of becoming immune to the advantages of figuring out what we actually think.

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