Last time I wrote about the threat to great questions created by our ubiquitous information environment. Specifically, I discussed how easy answers and the loss of context make it less likely that good questions will be asked. But the Web and cloud computing and augmented reality and our intricate pervasive network of communication and data can also get more people asking questions.
- Friends of friends may be weird. While social networks usually reinforce our points of view and prejudices, we have greater access to people who are at the edges of our community of friends than we would in face-to-face environments. Through sites like Facebook, we get to see what they are amused by, experiencing and suffering on a daily basis, and often they express themselves with passion that is difficult to ignore. Such real-time windows into other people’s lives – even if we aren’t drawn into discussions — can put us into uncomfortable positions – often the beginning of the best questions.
- We have access to video that is varied, engaging and consumable. I’ll admit that much of it is also trivial and vulgar, but it is easy to get hooked into snippets of video that present new perspectives and ideas. These can pull you further out of your community of friends, just as great movies have done, often raising social consciousness – and questions. But, unlike great movies, videos nudge us on a regular basis and can be as timely as a keystroke.
- Communications can pull us out of our chairs. Think about social protest based on tweets. Real-time information has always been an advantage in war. Now it can be an advantage in culture. And once you are out of your chair, you face realities that create questions that need answers.
- Lies face the facts. There has never been a better opportunity for squelching rumors, undoing spin and calling out those who mislead and misrepresent. I can question authority and faux experts. I have a search engine, and I know how to use it – if I want to. If I am skeptical. If I care.
This last point illustrates that our information environment is really a tool, which can be used for good or ill. Any of the good the information environment does can be turned to bad uses. It is the attitudes, the values and the knowledge we bring to our data-rich society that makes the biggest difference.
Ultimately I believe we need a renewed emphasis on curiosity and critical thinking. I suspect both are in decline and it will take no less than a cultural revolution to rebuild skills – and, more importantly, social commitment – to these two. There are lesson plans and resourced devoted to critical thinking skills (though more needs to be done). Less is available on curiosity, perhaps because many people think it is mostly something you’re born with. Nevertheless, next time, I’ll cover curiosity and some of the opportunities that exist to nurture and support it.