On Boredom, Truth and Infoliteracy

Technology is making my nightmares as a grandparent come true because few things exert a more powerful pull on my grandchildren than their IGadgets. And I have 7 grandchildren! I want to be important to them but alas…let’s face it, they’d often rather be narcoticized by technological diversions. Their IPads, smartphones and X boxes have a monopoly on their attention and intellect, especially so with the oldest 14 year old.

I’m fascinated with this kid and proud of him, but I’ve also been worried for years about his all consuming love affair with electronics. Like most kids these days he uses the word “Boredom” like a weapon – it’s designed to disturb the parent. Boredom is something to be avoided at all costs, and without electronics life is just plain boring. Is it the parent’s fault then? There are few chores he needs to perform, and whatever work needs to be done can be overlooked in the hazy days of summer. Like any adolescent he ignores what his parent thinks because he’s spellbound by his own ideas. Maybe we as adults are partly to blame – we live in a culture of overprotection and excessive control, kids too who live in a world of car seats until they’re a ludicrous age, liability waivers at school for every little thing, knee pads and helmets, Day-Glo vests and no peanut-butter or juice-box schools. The world is safe, and neutral. Or boring even. And just maybe we’ve spoiled them. If our grandson ever steps out it’s to go to the mall where he buys at Starbucks, where customers, incidently, all have their heads buried in their laptops.

This boy is detached from his surroundings – a dirty breakfast table, for example – but he’s busy in his mind. He is analytical and devoted to logic, and he has an abhorrence of contradiction. School to him is a boring place even though there’s little that has to be studied, memorized, and worst of all, endured. The value of the issues in his education seem to involve a novelty; an interest, however fleeting, and a curiosity – like the subject matter that finds its way to his gadgets, they offer fascination, but not complexity. He can’t stand poetry and especially Shakespeare – nowadays, he says, people just need ‘plain language.’ Words have very little to recommend themselves except as carriers of meaning….if a sentence refuses to issue forth a quick answer or explanation it means nothing. Hopefully later in school he will learn to follow a line of thought that requires the ability to classify, reason, weigh ideas, make inferences, detect abuses of logic and common sense, and compare and contrast assertions. Because the information coming to him via the Internet is like a collection of disconnected facts, a ‘Trivial Pursuit’ style of delivery, with no use of complex language: resources like irony and metaphor and paradox; and with no connection between past and future it acts as a kind of dismemberment of reality.

Huxley’s vision in his books involved people coming to love their oppression and adore the technology undermining their capacity to think. Man has an infinite appetite for distraction and they spell a transformation of our way of thinking. Another very precious grandson of ours loves his Xbox, so much so that he can’t stop thinking, focussing, trying and eventually getting said Xbox. Don’t ask a 2 year old with his eyes on the cookie jar the difference between “need” and “desire” because he can’t tell you; and we don’t ask this kid the difference between “have to” and “want to” when he’s in pursuit of his xbox, in the chase-down, the foretaste of getting. You can sure see the joy on his face when he gets it! For a while Boredom is transcended. Until he’s practically forced to quit.

We take arms against a sea of troubles but who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? The problem with the people in “Brave New World” was that they didn’t know why they had stopped thinking.

“If I found it online it must be true” is not the kind of thinking we want to foster in our kids. Science and history are full of things we knew, or thought we knew, until we discovered that we were wrong. The idea of truth is closely linked to the biases of forms of expression – truth must appear in its proper clothing or be ignored. The power of a word, a phrase, a character ( a Shakespearean character! Yes, technology attacks liberate culture.. ) is invested with meaning and a variety of attitudes, but whatever its original meaning and limited context have been, technology has the power to fly beyond the context into new and unexpected ones. It directs and organizes our minds; it imposes itself on our consciousness in many forms, in other words, it’s relevant to the way we regulate our ideas of truth. Technology alters the way we experience the world: like a camera it classifies it for us, sequences it, frames it, enlarges or reduces it, colours it and argues a case for what it’s like.

Is there a moral bias to each information form? Because much of what we read or hear should raise our suspicions. Misinformation propagates as one person passes it to another, as Twitter, Facebook, Snapshot and other social media grab hold of it and spread it around the world. What kind of information best fascilitates thinking? What does it mean to say there is too much information? Do electronic devices give us new definitions to words (‘privacy’, for example ), or characters ( Macbeth, for example ), or countries ( Iraq, say )? Some experts in “A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age” say that credibility has replaced reality as the test of truth- telling. That’s not too surprising when subject matter is presented as entertainment. Maybe just to ask the questions is to break the spell. What we have is a world of information co-habiting with a world of misinformation: figuring out which is true can be a daunting task even if you aren’t a teenager. Check the sources, they say, and avoid the gullibility of accepting every claim.

It ain’t what you don’t know
that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure
that just ain’t so.

Mark Twain