Removing the blinkers: Being informed and questioning in the age of information overload

I have always work under the assumption that a well read individual is a better informed individual.

So started a conversation between a contact and myself recently.

“I wish other people thought the same, maybe I’d be less frustrated and cynical”, I continued.

It’s part of the frustration I have behind a status I put up a week ago.

How did we get here?

With the abundance of information available to even the most average individual, you’d expect that we would have generated a better informed public.

Instead, it seems to breed apathy.

Simple, neglectful indifference by average punters to fact check any claims they are exposed to creates the kind of fertile crass ignorance that can be plowed by politicians & campaigners to grow messages that feed distorted, simplistic stereotypes that are consumed by a public seeking their own self-interests & bias confirmations.

[is it] Because they assume that someone else is keeping them honest?

Don’t misinterpret me, I don’t believe I have the answers. Not.at.all.

However, as I have written before, I do have the questions – and sometimes that is far more important. My enlightened self interest is always tempered by most important question of “who benefits most from what has been stated?” If the answer doesn’t include “my country, my community, my family or me” then who is it really for and why am I entertaining it?

I perceive that in part at least, the problem comes from a mix of issues. The biggest may very well be the paradox of choice in an age of information overload. Data is everywhere. Newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, online news services, blogs, social media, RSS feeds …

People have become lazy. As Aldous Huxley prophesied in “Brave New World” people have so much information that they are reduced to passivity with the truth concealed from us not through censorship as George Orwell feared (in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”) but drowned out in a sea of irrelevance.

Where once news media outlets were the bastions of vetted information that was researched and provided sans-opinion, today it seems that the majority of journalistic writers are far more likely to be overpaid opinion bloggers and formatters of press releases rather than researchers and fact finders of former years.

So, how does one go forward? My original hypothesis is rendered useless in the face of this brave new onslaught, is it not?

Can we be considered well informed and well read if we are fed a diet of irrelevant opinion pieces and revenue driven infotainment? Can we trust any of the news feeds at all? Traditional or otherwise?

How do I maintain my need to be informed whilst also ensuring a level of verifiable validity, unadulterated facts and the virtue of integrity?

The reality is that it is unlikely that we, in this day and age, will find all of these values in just one source of “the truth”.

Due to these trends, I have altered my news reading preferences – I do not mean simply the sources, but also the mediums. I must gather information from a number of sources if I am to continue to try to sort the wheat from all that chaff.

But even with all of this, a well informed mind is one that is well read – but the reading cannot be news alone.

Books, research papers, documentaries and other learning media all offer the ability to broaden the mind. They open your mind’s eye, offering new perceptions and allowing you to evaluate information from differing perspectives.

It is easier to determine the “truth” of a subject if one is familiar with a subject. For example, if one is not exposed to the vaccine research industry and the requirements demanded of material producers, how can one determine if a story about a producer or method is correct? How does one determine if an egg producer is justified in denying access to the property and the sheds?

However, it is a known fact that learning requires appetite. We are not likely to learn if we do not find interest in a subject. Like a horse fed on sugar cubes, carrots and apples, there is no point walking it towards the feed bin for what incentive will it have to munch on dry Lucerne hay?

That said, such a diet will do nothing for the overall health of the horse. So, it requires a fine balance of nutrition and treats. So it is with our minds – read things that interest you. Learn about things that provide your mind with nutrition as well as treats.

In a similar vein, Callie Schweitzer asks “How do you get your news?” in an article she wrote for Medium entitled “How We Internet: Finding the right news among too many options”

Whilst her arguments are also in relation to the paradox of choice, it is primarily argued from locating news. She states that there are two kinds of news: news you find, and news that finds you.

News you find is content you actively seek out: opening a news app to see the top headlines, flipping through a magazine you subscribe to, making your way over to CNN or NYTimes.com. News that finds you is anything inbound: news that comes to you via a social network, e-mail, or instant message.

I won’t bother repeating more of her article – just go and read it, because whilst I come at it from a different direction, I utilise the same types of methods. Only, in my case, the sources and apps change to meet my own needs and interests. In short:

  1. Read a paper: Once a day or once a week, it exposes you to news that you may not normally read by simply having the paper open and scanning past headlines. 
  2. Use a “read later” app: I also use “pocket” but I know of others who choose to utilise “instapaper”. This is great for those TL;DR articles, web-pages, blog pieces or other media that you are interested in but simply didn’t have time for at the instance of discovery. Much like Callie, I tend to read these during those “dead times” – commutes, waiting rooms … even the toilet. Those that I find worthy of further value – whether for research, re-reading, simply consideration find themselves in one of my evernote notebooks.
  3. I prefer to utilise Flipboard to merge my reading “navigation paths”. Facebook, Twitter (both my accounts and specific #hashStreams), G+, Tumblr, LinkedIn, LifeHacker, ABC News, CSIRO, and other news feeds of interest all get amalgamated into a magazine format that makes it far easier to consume. Where given a choice, between newsletter and RSS feed, the latter wins and goes into this app.
  4. Where an RSS feed is not an option, I will subscribe to digests, I tend to limit these to specific industry bodies rather than news sources.
  5. I still subscribe to a few magazines – I used to choose just print because of the same reason as having a physical newspaper – but my environmental sensibilities have since replaced all those that offer it, from a physical to electronic subscription.
  6. Books. I have hundreds that I have bought, and hundreds more that I have borrowed. Need I say more?

There are sure to be a great many other ways to broaden your mind – training and courses, travel, etc – but a broad spectrum of news and information is still, to me, one of the best ways.

Here’s the crunch – due to the paradox of choice, due to this plethora of competition and the instant-on reporting requirements actually shifts the responsibility of questioning, the responsibility of fact checking, indeed the very essence of being impartial (if that is what we desire) back onto us, the readers, viewers, consumers. No longer can we expect that news services will offer us well formed, researched articles. No longer can we expect objectivity. No longer can we expect them to have no agenda or proffer no opinion.

So, just don’t read blindly, always – and I do mean always – question. Always perform even a cursory fact check.

You might be surprised at the level of misinformation you are exposed to every day. Even from the sources you think you trust.

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