The printing press changed the world. It introduced new forms of expression and enabled better and faster information sharing. Print enabled individual interpretation of the bible and resulted in the questioning of the established Christian church and later the Protestant Reformation. Written manuscripts became obsolete luxury items. A new public discourse was enabled by print and the ensuing literacy of more people. Of course the dark sides of printed works include propaganda, jingoism, and xenophobia.
Electric, or digital, distribution of written words changes the nature of the medium, just as print originally changed the handwritten word. With instant global publishing, anyone can become an ‘influencer’, whether for a four-year electoral term or a mere ’15 minutes of fame’. This instant transmission of opinions confuses them with facts and erodes faith in traditional experts, like scientists, hence a rise in once-eradicated diseases due to an unwillingness to get vaccinated.
“The MMR vaccine immunises against measles, mumps and rubella … A steady fall in the uptake of the MMR jab means the UK has now lost its measles free status, just three years after the virus was eliminated.
Currently, only 87.2% of children have the second dose of the vaccine.” —Sky News 2019-08-19
The borderless and ‘liquid’ transmission of information makes for a global oral cacophony. The result is often false narratives used by demagogues to gain attention and power. Even in Canada, science may be politicized during the next election campaign because the leader of one minor party has an ‘opinion’ that climate change is not real.
“An Elections Canada official told groups in a training session earlier this summer that since Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has expressed doubts about the legitimacy of climate change, any group that promotes it as an issue in its paid advertising could be considered partisan and might need to register as a third party with Elections Canada … Because of that, Elections Canada is warning that any third party that advertises information about carbon dioxide as a pollutant or climate change as an emergency could be considered to be indirectly advocating against Bernier and his party.” —CBC News 2019-08-19
With every part of the political spectrum feeding us fake news and the events in far-off countries having effects on our own borders, each citizen in a democracy has to become an aggressively informed sense-maker. Today, the world is liquid, with few hard borders to stop information flow — both true & false. Having unfettered access to unfettered information is no longer enough. But we can each do something.
As individuals we can get out of our close-knit communities and cultural silos with a mere click. We can ignore the bots, trolls, and propagandists and instead connect to real people, doing real work in other parts of the world. From these networks we can then get real knowledge about what is happening in the world. Citizenship in the network era starts with personal knowledge mastery — making sense of the networked world on our own and with our fellow citizens.
Critical thinking — the questioning of underlying assumptions, including our own — is becoming all-important as we have to make our way in the network era. One way to frame it, is as four main activities.
- Observing and studying our fields
- Participating in professional and social communities
- Building tentative opinions
- Challenging and evaluating ideas
Critical thinking must be practiced. Social media are tools that can help us develop emergent practices. They can enable global conversations. Social media can facilitate the sharing of implicit knowledge through conversations to inform the collaborative development of emergent work practices. Conversations that push our limits enable critical thinking, and the questioning of our assumptions.
Critical thinking takes practice. Living in such a state of perpetual beta can be uncomfortable. The key is to be engaged in our learning. It requires strong opinions, loosely held. That means going out on a limb knowing we may criticized. It also means putting forth half-baked ideas, which over time and exposure may develop into something more solid.
One of our constant challenges will be finding the right information. Our networks can help us think critically — if they are open, transparent, and most importantly, diverse. From our external communities and networks we can discover new ideas and opinions. This is where serendipity often beckons. In a liquid world, our communities and networks can keep us afloat, but we have to first build our ‘knowledge rafts’. Together we can learn to navigate the emerging ‘liquid-modern culture’.
“Ironically, in an age of instant global connection, my certainty about anything has decreased. Rather than receiving truth from an authority, I am reduced to assembling my own certainty from the liquid stream of facts flowing through the web. Truth, with a capital T, becomes truths, plural. I have to sort the truths not just about things I care about, but about anything I touch, including areas about which I can’t possibly have any direct knowledge. That means that in general I have to constantly question what I think I know. We might consider this state perfect for the advancement of science, but it also means that I am more likely to have my mind changed for incorrect reasons.” —Kevin Kelly