Agnotology – You mean ignorance isn’t bliss?

W I R E D | Clive Thompson on How More Info Leads to Less Knowledge

Normally, we expect society to progress, amassing deeper scientific understanding and basic facts every year. Knowledge only increases, right?

Robert Proctor doesn’t think so. A historian of science at Stanford, Proctor points out that when it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: Ignorance increases.

He has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.”

I had flashbacks of Neil Postman as I read this article. Arguably a different yet related concept is information-glut (or, perhaps more commonly, “information overload”): the notion that after a certain point the more information accumulates, the more chaos, uncertainty, and ignorance (rather than order, clarity, and knowledge) there is (Technopoly). As I recall, Postman posited this as something inevitable rather than driven by an actual desire to sow disinformation. He uses a story from Plato’s Phaedrus about the discovery of writing to illustrate his point. The god Theuth presents writing to the Egyptian King Thamus and describes how, by teaching it to his people, it would be “a sure receipt for memory and wisdom”. Thamus is less than enthused. He says to the god:

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (371-372)

((This is a variant translation than the one Postman uses, which is the 1973 Penguin Books version (96), but I prefer this one for saying the same thing in fewer words. Emphasis in the selection is my own.))

Graph: Information and Decision Making

Agnotology, according to Thompson, seems to be more about deliberate attempts at spreading disinformation or at supressing information. I would argue that “culturally constructed ignorance” includes both of these, but also Postman’s less nefarious (though just as counterproductive) principle of information-glut. Postman suggests (and more-than-suggests) that developments in modern information technologies are to blame for this surfeit in information, resulting in an ever-expanding bubble of impenetrable white noise. Part of this comes from, I suppose, Postman’s own worldview; I recall Harvey in Reading American Tech refering to him as a “lovable curmudgeon” (usually followed by an apology for speaking ill of the dead). But even if Postman is demonstrating an old man’s resistance to change in his dramatization of this principle, I don’t think it’s possible to look at, just as an example, internet culture, and not witness information-leading-to-ignorance.

Even Thompson recognizes this:

Maybe the Internet itself has inherently agnotological side effects. People graze all day on information tailored to their existing worldview. And when bloggers or talking heads actually engage in debate, it often consists of pelting one another with mutually contradictory studies they’ve Googled: “Greenland’s ice shield is melting 10 years ahead of schedule!” vs. “The sun is cooling down and Earth is getting colder!”

((I can attest: my iTunes religiously downloads MSNBC’s Countdown and Rachel Maddow Show every week day, but I can’t sit through five minutes of the O’Reilly Factor or Glenn Beck without throwing things at the TV. I’m loathe to admit it, but I’m sure this firmly places me in the liberal camp in terms of American politics- good thing I’m Canadian! From my days lurking on bulletin boards, I can say that there’s such a huge gap between political views- Canadian and American- and so much information available to support arguments for either position, that too often there’s no room for consensus and people simply go on arguing at cross-purposes.))

If that’s the case, if technology itself indeliberately breeds ignorance, I’m afraid I can’t share Proctor’s or Thompson’s optimism. The advance of technology (some call this ‘progress’, I’m still withholding judgment) is not something that can simply be stopped, short of a global catastrophe. You have to wonder, in a world that’s already divided by two irreconcilable ideologies, how much more divided can we get?

As a final word on the matter, I’d like to share something from Robert Pepperell‘s “raw notes” blog: The Posthuman Condition.

The world generated by perception is not the world ‘as it is’.

The world ‘as it is’ is infinite, the world as perceived is finite.

What we perceive is a fragment of an infinite potential; the world in entirety is not perceptible.

Yet we are also part of the world in entirety.

And what we perceive is the world as it is, since we are the world as it is.

Leaving for a moment the last couple of lines, I think we can look at the whole problem of information as an issue of perception. The universe in its entirety is unfathomable. It is not humanly possible for us to perceive everything. And yet the place we find ourselves in today is a place where increasingly we have social mechanisms that attempt to do just that. Will it ever be possible for us, any of us, to see the forest for the trees, or are we doomed to forever wander lost within, never knowing the whole breadth and shape of this neverending jungle?

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