Maria Konnikova’s opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times got me to thinking. We all love our Instant Internet Information Age, and we even accept that it comes with compromises to accuracy.
But have we forgotten about the importance of context? Of questioning? Without context – and the time and care to provide it – isn’t any issue less comprehensible? Without questioning our assumptions (and sources), aren’t we subject to shoddy conclusions?
If we take the easy way out when it comes to informing ourselves, who can we blame – except ourselves?
In “Don’t Quote Me on This,” Ms. Konnikova takes on the topic of the many citations that float across our online circles as we make an argument, offer inspiration, or present ourselves as witty, winsome and wise. In the name of brevity (along with page views, likes, and shares), we are proponents of the pithy, the succinct, and the momentarily motivational.
The Pleasure of the Quick Quote
To Ms. Konnikova’s point, we all indulge in the quick quote. Social media has encouraged this practice, to say the least. And why not? We can Google and find just the right words, usually spoken or written by someone famous – or notorious. Yet this is often the easy way out, replacing thorough thinking, real research, and a genuine understanding of the subject matter at hand.
The quick quote risks elimination of in-depth discussion.
Not only does Ms. Konnikova offer examples of this, but she explains:
Like pretty much every other 20-something, I’m online constantly… I need the Internet for my work. I need it for my research. I need it, often, for my sanity…
With one important caveat. When I need to write or think, I shut the whole thing down. Otherwise, it’s too easy… to drift from fragment to fragment without pausing to consider the whole…
With a nod to the irony of citing fragments to elaborate on the problem of citing fragments, I nonetheless hope to provide context in doing so, as does Ms. Konnikova in the Times essay, and far more ably than I.
The Demise of Critical Thinking?
Occasionally, I have conversations with a friend in education, as he bemoans the extent to which memorization and testing have replaced any attempt to instill the habits of critical thinking. For clarification purposes, according to The Critical Thinking Community, critical thinking is defined as:
… that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective… [with] assent to rigorous standards of excellence… It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.
Also mentioned in the conceptual framework of critical thinking are:
… clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, logic, and fairness.
The Importance of Posing Questions
In a culture that frequently feels as if we’re under constant bombardment by snippets we can repeat and then forget, in a society that is wound tight and promoting speed at all cost, in our growing acceptance of the abbreviated, the unsubstantiated, the crowd-sourced conversation – will we lose capacity to learn as well as attentiveness or patience? Are we priming ourselves to lose capacity to ruminate, to reflect, to think for ourselves?
Have we abdicated the rightful place of questioning in any civilized community?
Without the willingness to question – really question – there is no critical thinking. So shall we consider the time involved to assure clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, logic and yes, fairness?
If we do not allow the necessary time to our students, our creatives, our workers at all levels, ourselves under any label – as learners and as consumers of information, how can we expect anything but compromise to critical thinking and its outputs?
Do More with Less
I can almost pinpoint the period in my life that was noticeably altered by “do more with less.” It was the late 1980s, when in addition to our routine 12-hour days, we were expected to take on a large portion of the tasks previously performed by administrative staff. While technology was theoretically facilitating this evolution, the fact that it was a time of consolidation via mergers and acquisitions, along with growing emphasis on cost and staff reductions, wasn’t lost on us.
I had always put in long hours at the office as did my colleagues; we were young, we were unmarried, we were building our careers.
Some 25 years later, “do more with less” is our norm, isn’t it? Whether we’re talking about our professional lives, our social lives, or our family lives, aren’t we all cramming “more” of every sort into a dwindling “less” in terms of time and quality?
Online is Easy, Thinking is Hard
I will add this observation, which is hardly unique: Our growing love of digital devices, online communities, and assorted entertaining apps leaves us so immersed in documenting our lives that we are not fully living them. I am no Luddite (my social media habits are testimony to that, for both pleasure and profession), but I know myself to be susceptible to this very tendency. It is simply too easy to play “telephone” with whatever headline passes across our screens, to deflect serious thought, or to forgo necessary consideration before we skip to the next Big Thing… or little one.
We compromise care, consideration, context… in the name of expediency and at times, of course, necessity.
And so I find myself following Ms. Konnikova’s lead, and I repeat:
When I need to write or think, I shut the whole [online] thing down.
Taking Time Means Trade-Offs
If anything, I can look at my own processes and recognize that I ought to take the “easy way” more often. I have been accused of being too rigorous, caring too much, and being unwilling to sacrifice quality for, say… sleep, or money.
I can’t argue with those who give me this advice; I have difficulty making trade-offs that concern quality, and I imagine I always will.
As I wrestle with the choices that many of us face when it comes to managing our time (and the ever elusive “work life balance”), I ask myself if high standards must always be compromised – an ambiguous statement that is, forgive me… without context. Still, is there no middle ground in which we exercise judgment? Can we rebel against the urge to play telephone with online communication? Am I doing precisely that here, with no value-add contribution?
And practically speaking, how do we say no to “do more with less?”
I am all for playfully engaging in my 140 characters on Twitter – and I do, often. Yet I hope that I also use those characters to point to in-depth conversation. And sadly, as I have no doubt quoted Ms. Konnikova with insufficient context (and to serve my own ends), this hastily cobbled together musing would not qualify. So please, don’t quote me on any of this.
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