Friday, May 13, 2011

Junk information

books, bookstore, shelves

There's a lot that's been written lately about how much information is available to us through the internet and out in the world. It seems as though people are overstimulated and yet somehow uninspired, almost stifled by the options available. Calvin's dad once had a fit about the wide variety of peanut butters available in the grocery store. It's kind of like that. 

So there are tweets and Facebook posts at the bottom of it, meaningless snippets, but capable of sucking away half a person's day. One level up are blogs, newspaper articles (online or not) and magazines. While these are slightly more in depth discussions or examinations of a topic, a couple of pages are most often not sufficient for true thoroughness. A really well written article can, however, inspire further investigation on the part of a reader by prodding their curiosity and providing a vivid window into the subject.

Here are some bits and pieces of associated information that I've pulled together here. My favourite is a quotation from a professor Aitken, who I referenced in my thesis on childhood memory a few years ago. Aitken suggests that the best way to understand or memorize something is to love and care about it first and seek meaning in it, giving yourself context and motivation for information retention, as well as a more complex understanding of the subject through muti-layered assimilation. 

"The thing to do is to learn by heart, not because one has to, but because one loves the thing and is interested in it." -Professor Alexander Craig Aitken (Ian M.L. Hunter, “An Exceptional Memory,” In Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts, ed. Ulric Neisser (New York: Worth Publishers, 2000), 515.) 
And on the subject of tidbits versus comprehensive:
Many of us worry about a decline in deep, reflective, cover-to-cover reading. We deplore the shift to blogs, snippets, and tweets. In the case of research, we might concede that word searches have advantages, but we refuse to believe that they can lead to the kind of understanding that comes with the continuous study of an entire book. Is it true, however, that deep reading has declined, or even that it always prevailed? Studies by Kevin Sharpe, Lisa Jardine, and Anthony Grafton have proven that humanists in the 16th and 17th centuries often read discontinuously, searching for passages that could be used in the cut and thrust of rhetorical battles at court, or for nuggets of wisdom that could be copied into commonplace books and consulted out of context. - Robert Darnton, "Five myths about the 'Information Age" The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 2011.
Lastly, some associated bits on multitasking, technology and focus from NYTimes and elsewhere can be found starting with this here blog post.

Photo from Capitol Hill Books, winter 2011. Not junk information?