Tag Archives: citizenship

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Defiantly Out of Touch

[This 2016 post seems as relevant today as when it was written. Even with a few updates, it is still true that willful ignorance has become a form of political life.]

In his sobering 1989 study, Democracy Without Citizens, Robert Entman dwelt on the irony of living in an information-rich age with huge numbers of badly informed 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 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.

Many seem comfortable living without even an elementary understanding of the world they “know.” 

As Entman notes, “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.

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 Uncle Fred who is certain that the President Obama was a Muslim who was born in Kenya, you have an idea of what kind of willful ignorance this represents.

Circumferance of the unknownThink 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 television programming—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 time left to notice our own informational black holes.

With regard to the basics of membership in a society, the idea of citizenship should mean more.  In most elections cycles easily 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 has happened at a time when a President and many others have been captured by a reality-show logic that substitutes melodrama for more sober discussions of policy and governing best practices.  Put It altogether and too many of us don’t want notice that we have been captured by fantasies rather than truths.

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From Citizens to Consumers

There is something wrong with a culture that reduces its citizens to consumers. Citizens should be free agents; they must be more than moving targets for marketers pushing products.

The current news about the Federal Communications Commission’s intent to end enforcement of ‘net neutrality’ rules next month may seem like an arcane shift in policy.  No doubt Americans may have more pressing concerns.  But the proposed action to end the requirement that portals require easy access to all internet sites is troubling.  It represents nothing less than the slow drift of American policy-making toward oligarchy, or the dominance of the culture by the favored and the rich.  Under the new rules, there is the potential for educational and informational sites to be devalued by service providers in favor of sites that can pay for special treatment, meaning faster “load” rates and ease of searching.  Indeed, under the new rules, a site may be ignored completely. Full disclosure here: I and other non-commercial sites will be negatively affected because we are not selling things. Wikipedia, bloggers, think tanks, non-profit resources like the Pew Research Center will be put at a disadvantage.  By contrast, Amazon.com, Walmart and streaming services who sell content have nothing to fear.

Defenses of the change heard from the FCC and supporters almost always mention how the policy change will benefit “consumers.”  These days the presumption is that the internet is the premier venue for selling products and services. But as important the internet of things has become, we must not forget the internet of ideas. Indeed, the original reason for inventing “hypertext” and a network of networks in the 1980s was to ease the ability of researchers to communicate with each other and share their work. Online selling would come much later.

There is something wrong with a culture that reduces its citizens to consumers. Citizens should be free agents; they must be more than moving targets for marketers pushing products. We need only look to China to see how this shift in policy could play out.

The Chinese standard of living has risen dramatically.  Friends who grew up in China report that they are both amazed and appalled to revisit the country and find friends who have become rabid materialists.  They live to shop and acquire “prestige” products. For the middle class, the Communist state has become a haven of consumerism. At the same time, political discussion on the web is risky. Chinese authorities regularly prosecute citizens for espousing views hostile to the party or its leaders.  And a “Great Fire Wall” has descended that makes it nearly impossible to read online materials that represent the internet of ideas: allegedly “extreme” stories coming from the BBC, the New York Times, or local bloggers concerned about crime or political corruption. By and large, American companies doing business there accept these rules as the price to pay for access to lucrative markets.

To be sure, we are not a one-party state like China.  But the FCC decision will move us closer to being a culture where large corporate internet providers will have the power to monitor and censor sites deemed less worthy or less willing to pay for access.  What may be a boon for American business may come at the cost of the public discussion of ideas.