Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Kids are Alright

There's this theory that I've been inflicting on just about anyone who will listen for a while now--

A good friend of mine (We'll call him B) was up from his Ph.D. work at UCR a while back, and we got into a discussion about bands using the internet/youtube/myspace to self-promote their work, and B, who looks deceptively young (he's in his early 50s, but can easily pull off mid 30s, and has a youthful vibe that makes it very hard to believe that he is exactly the same age as my stepfather), started grousing about how young people just don't have the same creativity they did back in his day (B's youth covered the end of the hippie thing and went up into early punk--he's seen all those legendary punk acts that self-destructed in the 80s). This assertion led to a bit of an argument, with me going to bat for all the young folks (being an ancient 34 myself), with the general (and chosen for maximum irony of reference) assertion that "the kids are alright."

I won't claim that I haven't had the same kind of thoughts, but aging has always had the effect of convincing us that the world is going to hell:

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.

--Hesiod 700BC

All this really comes around to what's at the root of all this panic about "the direction of society." I spend a lot of time around 18-20 year olds, and they alternately impress and scare the bejeezus out of me, but the scary stuff isn't some transgression against good sense, but an adaptive response to the world in which they find themselves.

Sitting here at my computer, I have access to an effectively infinite source of information and entertainment. Let my construct a basic quasi-syllogism here:

1. There is a massive amount of information generated and pushed through this "series of tubes" on a daily basis.
2. I, and anyone else, has a finite capacity to absorb that information.
3. The mechanisms for sorting and filtering that information that we learn were developed for a very different world, where the interwebs are a novelty at most, and publishers and editors did most of the work for us.
4. Nevertheless, we all have to find a way to get what we need from the infosphere.

Conclusion: Young people (and the population at large--children and teenagers are just ahead of the curve 'cause they're doing it in real time) have new mechanisms for accomplishing the task of sifting information.

The trouble is, though, that the mechanisms at work have a few flaws that are often exploited. Basically, I think most people sort through information in two ways:

1. Plausibility--does this piece of information, on a quick examination, fit in with all the other notions I have about how the world works?
2. Repetition--have I heard this information from more than one source?

What's the danger here? Well, plausibility is vulnerable because sometimes implausible things are true because we happen to exist in a reality where our perspective tricks us (Aristotle fell for this all the time--and why Gallileo had such a rough time with the whole Earth 'round the Sun thing). This is why "counterintuitive" is one of my favorite words. It should be noted that, in our daily lives, the plausibility test is indispensable, but infoparasites can exploit it readily (maybe Walrus will illuminate us with his own investigation of the Air National Guard document forgery scandal--it's exactly what I'm talking about). Walrus and I spend a lot of time generating plausible bullshit; the difference, though, is that we make it clear that it is BS from the beginning. Repetition can be summed up in three words: talking points memo. If a small (or large) group of insiders can just get part of the media to reinforce the same idea, often phrased exactly the same way ("hatefest" being one of my favorites--"war on christmas" is another), then a lot of people are simply going to accept it as true. It's a rigged game, and we'd all better twig to it sooner than later.

The thing is, though, that I can't blame people, especially those who grew up in this kind of environment, for responding this way; it's not as though we can all be Thomas Jefferson any more and have the bulk of recorded knowledge in out parlours. We can't put the toothpaste back in the tube, and traditional methods of critical thinking are like insisting that people use a toothpick to deal with all that paste as it oozes out on the bathroom counter at an accelerating rate.

Now comes the hard part:

I have no idea how to deal with this problem. We all need to think hard and come up with a way of getting through all this info that is simultaneously more accurate, more reliable, and more efficient, because anything else is going to get its ass kicked by the sorting method described above. Thoughts?


  1. "all this info that is simultaneously more accurate, more reliable, and more efficient"

    Are you sure about this? What scares me: all of those BS pages upon pages of false information, all of those students insisting upon using Wikipedia as a credible source, all of those people who believe everything they hear from talk radio and biased news agencies...I could go on. It is scary. My son is crying right now, probably at the thought of having to sift through all of the useless information the world has to offer in order to attempt to find something that remotely resembles the truth...if such a thing still exists.

  2. Anonymous3:13 PM

    As a talk radio listener I give Boortz the most credit because he asks his listeners to check his stories and inform him if he was mistaken. I would agree about Wiki too many of my friends try to use it as a credible source, and deny an actual encyclopedia, "but wiki says..."

    The younger generation is always seen as wild, and the older generation is always stuck in their ways, and the only generation that is worthwhile is the one you're in. Although that is only the perception of the masses.

    I spend hours looking at the internet and reading books, no matter the source you have to learn how to take the information you're getting with a grain of salt. Verify and reverify and always question your sources.