Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why So Much Ignorance In This Age Of Technology?

I have always thought it ironic that in this age of interconnectedness, when we have almost unlimited sources of information at our disposal, so many of us are abysmally ignorant of the things that should matter. The level of civic disengagement in North America, for example, has facilitated the devolution of so many of our democratic institutions into mere channels of undue influence for the minority, ensuring that the needs of the many are subjugated to the wants of the few. Inaction on climate change, the ongoing degradation of ecosystems, the ever-widening disparity of incomes and the erosion of social programs are but the more egregious examples of this decline.

John Cruickshank, the publisher of the Toronto Star, attributes this phenomenon to 'distraction.' In his paper, he writes about a recent Toronto Ted Talk (not yet available on the Ted site) in which he examined the problem through the lens of young people who, both in Canada and the United States, have a voter participation rate of about 40%. However, he points out that the lack of voter participation is merely the most obvious manifestation of the level of engagement:
Voting’s just the marker. More critical are civic interests, habits and knowledge: The debates in the lunchroom about taxes and spending or public meetings over a new airport or a mega-quarry. The less visible indicators of democracy’s vitality.

It’s no coincidence youth voting is so similar in the U.S. and Canada. It’s not a question of national culture. And don’t blame “the kids today.” It’s a decades-long shift. It spans generations and geography.

And it appears to be driven by the devices and content that now dominate and consume our waking lives — our smartphones and tablets, our laptops and PCs and, at least for a little while longer, our TV screens.
All of these devices, while potentially quite useful, also have a tremendous power to distract. How many times, for example, will you be at the computer when the email signal rings and you switch immediately to it? Or how about a link or a popup in an article that takes you far away from your intended purpose? (I'll just take a minute to watch that footage of George Clooney going to his Venice wedding. Oh yeah, now what was I just doing?)

All of which is to say that news has a far more tenuous grip on us than in days of yore. For Cruickshank, it becomes a simple equation:
No news habit. No engagement.
Those who have learned to pursue the news become politically active.

The drift away from substance actually began, he says, with the proliferation of cable channels that, for the less-than-committed consumer of news, offered a welcome alternative. Much Music, MTV, etc. had an allure that the nightly news didn't.
As soon as alternatives emerged, more and more younger people failed to learn news skills and habits.

They were looking for distraction, not information about the world.

But even if this population only reluctantly followed the news, their political behaviour was just like that of the most committed news junkies. They voted: 80 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls in the Canadian federal election of 1958 — the year the CBC television signal first went coast to coast.
Canadian citizens aged 65 and older were still voting at the 80-per-cent level in the federal election of 2011. But the participation rate of each successive age group Boomers, X’ers and Millennials were lower by a greater and greater margin.

Mirroring their increasing failure to develop news skills.
Cruickshank has some specific suggestions on how to reverse this terrible trend, which I will leave you to discover by reading his article.

You may also find these two brief videos about his Ted Talk of interest:

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