Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Age of Information 'Lite'

You might recall from school days the story of the young Greek guy who sat beside a pool, saw his image reflected in the water and fell in love with himself. He couldn’t drag himself away and sat moonstruck, staring at his reflection until he died.

His name was Narcissus and psychologists named a mental condition after him. They called it Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or narcissism, a grandiose view of oneself and a craving for the attention and admiration of others.

Medical libraries bulge with studies on narcissism, some of the most recent examining whether social media and the selfies phenomena are fertilizing the growth of narcissism.

You don’t have to visit a medical library to find evidence that narcissism is growing. Television, hijacked by reality shows, is all narcissism now. More and more, so is politics.

Two of the more obvious North American narcissists among us are Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump. Look around and you’ll see others.

I don’t know if social media is contributing to what the experts say is a frightening growth in narcissism. Certainly new media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram  and others, and omnipresent smartphones and tablets, has increased the craving for self gratification. We are a society becoming obsessed with wanting to know who is paying attention to us.

A victim of all this is informed thinking. Too much of the information needed to build sound judgment and make good decisions now comes to us in low-cal snippets. New media snippets in which clicks and views are more important than well–researched facts.

Never in world history has the need for informed thinking been so important. Our shrinking world is cluttered with issues requiring critical thinking based on information that is as solid as Haliburton rock. Yet the Age of Information contains too much information that is soft as sand, as trustworthy as shadows.

Reading is the most effective way of getting informed, but for many of us reading has become simply glancing. We glance at information ‘lite’ and make our opinions instantly.

Research shows that while our visual skills are improving significantly, our critical thinking and analytical skills are declining. This trend will continue as we play more screen games and puzzles, and allow our kids to spend more time with shoot’em up games than with books, either paper or digital.

There are plenty of statistics on our electronic game habits but too many are collected by the gaming industry to be taken as fact. However, it’s probably safe to say that more than half of adults and at least one-third of kids under 18 play personal computer games on laptops, desktops, phones and tablets. Many school teachers use video games as a classroom teaching tool.

Anyone can confirm this by spending time with today’s kids. They process visual information quickly because of time spend with television and screen games. Everything is real time.

Meanwhile, reading skills have declined. Fewer kids actually read for pleasure these days. Too little time is spent reading that develops imagination, vocabulary, critical thinking and seeing the perspectives taught by history.

Reading, whether the words are laid down in print or digitally, sets us on the road to informed, critical thinking. Informed thinking helps us to understand change – why it is often necessary and how to handle it. It also helps us develop better values, and generally become a better society.

And, it allows us to rise above rumours, superstitions and political hyperbole and speak intelligently and forcefully against dumb political decisions.

Speaking of dumb political decisions, Newfoundland, which has Canada’s lowest literacy rate, will tax books starting in July. Its provincial sales tax will rise from eight to 10 per cent and be applied to books. That will be on top of the five per cent federal GST already charged on books.

It also has announced it will close 54 of the province’s 95 libraries.

You kind of wonder how all that is going to work out for them.

I also wonder if things would have worked out better for Narcissus if, instead of just staring at his reflection, he had brought a book to the pool.

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