Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Critical Consumption: A Map for the Digital Age

I've always been a bit of an explorer. As a kid, I'd read stories of explorers like James Cook and Daniel Boone, great men who went to exotic places, blazing trails and recording the grand places they went. I myself would hike through the rugged mountains of North Idaho, exploring unknown (at least to myself) reaches of the world, and even buying myself a ridiculously good-looking adventuring hat.
Me, looking crazy good in my adventuring hat
 I quickly learned that there are two ways to get to a place you've never been: the first, wander for who knows how long, hoping to eventually run into the right place, or secondly, have a good map.

As we navigate our new digital wilderness, with all its new opportunities and grand unexplored informational expanses, we are met with many different facts, arguments, and ideas. One of the guiding rules of the internet seems to be, "Don't believe everything you read online." This begs the question, what CAN we believe online? How can we use the great web of information to become better people? Is there a kind of digital "map" to show us the way?

First of all, if we are to know what we can believe, it's important to understand how the internet has changed the way that information is curated. With old mass media, such as print and television, power to decide what was covered was largely in the hands of a handful of reporters and editors. These were people trained in journalism, and they held the keys to the gates of knowledge. All of this changed however, with the internet.

Now, you and I can each put on our editor's moustache, if you will, and broadcast information to the world, clothed in whatever authority our personal rhetorical devices can gain us. The very blog you are reading is evidence of how easy it is! While this has a very democratizing element, since anybody can say what they want, it also causes issues. Because anybody can post anything without going through a cadre of trained journalists and editors who have their careers on the line, much is posted that may not meet their stringent standards. Thus, in order to make sure we are receiving reliable information as we browse the web, we must apply these stringent standards ourselves, and curate the information as it comes to us through the web.

In his book Net Smart, Howard Rheingold argues this point. He encourages use of the method of "triangulation", that is, getting three different, unrelated sources to verify any piece of information. By getting this triple verification, we can be more sure that the information we consume is true, quality information.

It's also important to look at the stakes an author has in the verity of their information. A person who is blogging for free from their couch is likely to have a much lower stake in their information than a person who could lose their job or be sued if their reporting is incorrect. Say what you will about the freedom and benefits of amateur reporting, but the guy who could get fired is going to be a lot more reliable!

Finally, it's important to have what Rheingold calls an inner "crap detector". Some stuff just smells funny, and it's important for us to be able to tell the difference between crap and ice cream. The best way to do this is to simply gain experience. After thousands upon thousands of weight-loss GoogleAds, one becomes pretty unlikely to believe a new one. Nigerian prince wants my bank account info so he can transfer me money? I don't think so! Simply by navigating the web on a regular basis and using common sense, we can develop "gut instincts" that help us make basic informational judgement calls.

We're all on an adventure as we decide what sources are reliable, what statistics are usable, and what really is true about the world. As we use good principles as a map to guide us, we will be able to tame the new digital wilderness, becoming better-informed, smarter, more well-rounded citizens in the process.

1 comment:

  1. "Triangulation" is a very useful tool for verifying truth on the internet. Thanks for including that pragmatic tip. I work at a law firm and part of my job is posting company blogs to our firm website. It is particularly important that I present accurate information.