Though a dynamic information environment has clear benefits for epistemic curiosity — better science, more informed debates, an engaged citizenry — the tilt of the affordance scale towards complacency always remains a lingering possibility. If we begin to lean in this direction, I contend that informed complacency is likely to take hold and lead us to ignorance and insularity amid a saturated information environment. This can create cognitive traps that, in the worst instance, diminish epistemic curiosity.
We are certain that we know — or can know — everything, past, present, and future, with the click of a button or the tap of a finger.
One of these traps is called the immediate gratification bias, which Tim Urban of Wait But Why, has playfully dubbed the “Instant Gratification Monkey”. He describes this predisposition as “thinking only about the present, ignoring lessons from the past and disregarding the future altogether, and concerning yourself entirely with maximizing the ease and pleasure of the current moment.” As a result of this predisposition, there is an increasing demand for instant services like Uber, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Tinder, which testifies that the notions of ease and instancy have infiltrated our thought-process, compelling us to apply them to every other aspect of our lives. The increase in the speed at which we consume information has molded us to rely on and expect instant results for everything. Consequently, we are likely to base our information decisions on this principle and choose not to dig past surface-level.
Another trap is found in gluttonous information habits — devouring as much of it as we can, as quickly as possible, solely for the sake of hoarding what we consider to be knowledge. In all our modernity, it seems that we misguidedly assume that consuming information at a faster pace is beneficial to the development of knowledge, when in fact, too much information (information overload) can have overwhelming, negative effects, such as the inability to make the “rich mental connections” Carr describes in his article. This trap is amplified by pressures to stay “in the know” as well as the market of apps and services that capitalize on a pervasive fear of missing out, transforming the pursuit of knowledge from an act of personal curiosity to a social requirement.
As its creators and users, we negotiate how technology integrates into our lives.
The complex algorithms deployed by search engine and social media conglomerates to manage our vast aggregates of information curate content in ways users are likely to experience not only as useful, but pleasurable. These algorithmic curations are purposefully designed to keep information platforms sticky; to keep users engaged, and ultimately sell data and attention. These are the conditions under which another cognitive trap arises: the filter bubble. By personally analyzing each individual user’s interests, the algorithms place them in a filtered environment in which only agreeable information makes its way to the top of their screens. Therefore, we are constantly able to confirm our own personal ideologies, rendering any news that disagrees with one’s established viewpoints as “fake news.” In this context, it’s easy to believe everything we read on the internet, even if it’s not true. This makes it difficult to accurately assess the truthfulness and credibility of news sources online, as truth value seems to be measured by virality rather than veracity.
Ultimately, with his argument grounded in technological determinism, Carr overlooks the perspective that technology cannot define its own purpose. As its creators and users, we negotiate how technology integrates into our lives. The affordances of digital knowledge repositories create the capacity for unprecedented curiosity and the advancement of human thought. However, they also enable us to be complacent, misinformed, and superficially satisfied; that is to say, an abundance of easily accessed information does not always mean persistent curiosity and improved knowledge. To preserve epistemic curiosity and avoid informed complacency, we should keep reminding ourselves of this and practice conscious information consumption habits. This means recognizing how algorithms filter content; seeking diverse perspectives and content sources; questioning, critiquing, and evaluating news and information; and perhaps most importantly, always do your best to venture past the first page of Google search results. Who knows, you might find something that challenges everything you believe.
Clayton d’Arnault is an Editor of The Disconnect, a new digital magazine that forces you to disconnect from the internet. He is also the Founding Editor of Digital Culturist. Find him on Twitter @cjdarnault.
Originally published by Cyborgology on March 13, 2018.