Jun 1, 2015

Maria Popova on our Age of Information, Media and Journalism

I find the convergence of the media and journalism, culture, information science, and psychology at the cultural malaises that our Information/Digital Age has given us — information overload, questions of privacy, and our restless generation's FOMO (Fear of Missing Out, in case you missed that) particularly interesting.

I approach this as someone of a product of my time, who extremely late to the game, joined Instagram only several months ago. I posted a status on Facebook announcing my Instagram debut:

I'm finally on Instagram! After all this time of people asking people asking me if I'm on Instagram, followed by an incredulous "What? Why not?" and "of all people you should be on Instagram!" My reply usually was, "it's just too much work".
Being the media omnivore that I am, I sometimes just felt media/information fatigue and didn't want to add yet another channel to that with expectations of a picture perfect instagramable life (hey, aren't there studies that show social media makes you depressed? FOMO and all).

More recently, I listened to an episode of On Being featuring Maria Popova, the creator and editor of BrainPickings. In her conversation with Krista Tippett of On Being, Popova sheds light on so many of our current afflictions through the wisdom she's gained in the close to a decade that she's turned to "old-fashioned reading" and writing for Brain Pickings. 

Tippett describes Popova's site, saying,

"We have all these assumptions we walk around with and lay them especially over the new generations, that there's no place for depth, that we can only take things in bite-sized pieces, that everything has to be entertaining. And yet, you present this discovery to people. That we want to know more about big ideas. We want our brains to be stretched. It's countercultural".

Popova replies, addressing our seemingly shortening attention spans:

"As a culture, you're right we seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know.
And there's this epidemic of listicles. Why think about what constitutes a great work of art when you can skim the 20 most expensive paintings in history? 

And I'm very guided by this desire to counter that in myself because I am, like everybody else, a product of my time and my culture. And I remember, there's a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim. And I think that's very much true of knowledge itself. The reason we're so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we've been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. I mean, the true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we should have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. And the only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There's nothing else. It's just time".
Popova on our 24-hour always on news cycle: 

"We've come to conflate journalism with news, and so much of that culture deals with what is urgent right now and not what is important in the grand scheme of things. And there is this sort of time bias, or presentism bias that happens.

In part, because of the way the Internet is structured. So if you think about anything from a Twitter feed to a facebook feed to a news website, the most recent floats to the top. And it's always in reverse chronology. And I think it's conditioning us to believe rather falsely that the most recent is the most important. And that the older matters less or just exists less to a point where we really have come to believe that things that are not on Google or on the news never happened, never existed, or don't matter. But I would say that 99 percent of the record of human thought is off the Internet and the history of humanity.

 It's a complicated question, and there are elements which I feel very strongly about, one of them is the commercialization of media. And so I think — the Internet — its beauty is that it's a self-perfecting organism, right? But as long as it's an ad-supported medium, the motive will be to perfect commercial interest, to perfect the art of the listicle, the endless slideshow, the infinitely paginated oracle, and not to perfect the human spirit of the reader or the writer.

And I think that journalism is moving further and further away from — you take something like E.B. White's ideal, which he said that the role of the writer is to lift people up, not to lower them down. And so much of what passes for journalism today lowers".

Tippett concurs, saying,

"Yeah. I think there's been this unfortunate convergence of the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle, and it's changed the effect, and I think this is a real challenge that journalism has to take up, it used to be possible to do some huge piece or expose on something shocking and horrible and that would mobilize people. But when people are bombarded by the shocking, and they actually start to internalize it as the norm, it actually shuts them down. 

You wrote something in the New York Times, and I just thought this is a great sentence, "a great story transcends the shock value to help the reader reconcile the cognitive dissonance of controversy and emerge closer to the truth, if only just a little bit".

Popova on how journalism should be:

“I mean, to me, there is so much goodness in the world. And of course, we just kind of have to show up for it and refuse to leave. Yes, people sometimes do horrible things. And we can speculate about why they do them until we run out of words and run out of sanity. But evil only prevails when we mistake it for the norm. And yet, the currency of news journalism is making it the norm".

And finally, Popova on how to thrive, both as individuals and a civilization:

"I think a lot about this relationship between cynicism and hope. Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. And I try and live in this place in between the two, to try and build a life there because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation, of which cynicism is a symptom and against which is a futile self-protection mechanism. 

But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves to making things better. And I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking with hope".

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