One of my favorite things about the internet is watching how people interpret things. Particularly in blog or Twitter posts where someone is forced to condense what they took away from an article down to just a sentence or two. What you notice is that people are incredibly bad at getting the point. Or worse, they walk away with an entirely self-constructed impression. (see: this from this)
A good example is to watch a speculative story evolve across websites. Jokes turn into facts, anonymous quotes turn into official statements, bizarre details become evidence for warped conspiracy theories and so it goes down the chain.
Of course part of this is what they call the confirmation bias. People tend to seek out the parts of what they experience that confirm their existing beliefs, or more often, their unacknowledged preferences or sensitivities. But that doesn’t completely explain the tendency to so profoundly and creatively miss what was right in front of them.
The ability to reduce something down to its essence—to understand, analogize and articulate is a skill we tend to assume is simply there. It isn’t. In fact, most of the tools we have for sharing not only don’t facilitate this synthesis, they discourage it. Comments sections seem to thrive on conflict; a commenter needs to call the writer out or disagree with a trivial part of what they said. Twitter and Facebook are about sharing our opinion about a thing, not what that thing was. Newspapers, blogs and television, both for the creators and also for the viewers, are about making that thing as big as it can be or else it doesn’t deserve the attention. What we’re left with after consuming and participating in this cycle is an inability to comprehend what we see in an honest or accurate way.
If you think this process as a kind of entropy, then the question is how to rebuild what is constantly falling apart–or worse, what we were never explicitly taught. I think this is where several spiritual exercises have value. The first is one the Stoics called “contemptuous expressions,” essentially a way to use cynicism to reduce something to its most basic state. Sex is a few minutes of rubbing and then semen. What a King submits to in private versus the image he presents to his subjects. Another, from Cicero, is to ask this question in every situation: Cui bono? By assuming there is a exposed interest yet unmasked, we’re required to examine each party from an unusual but enlightening perspective—suspicion.
The idea of practicing the act of getting to the center or premise of something is about more than improving reading comprehension. In what they are describing as “economics of abundance” there is no scarcity to ensure preselection. This means that what we see, read, hear or are pitched—from entertainment to a business plan—is more likely to be bullshit. Think: misinterpretation layered on top of misinterpretation, stripped from context and general understanding. Without the ability to separate the folds to look at the central, underpinning parts of an issue, you’re at the mercy of the comically distorted reality of the people mentioned above.
It’s like when Gary Coleman died. Nobody wanted to find out what happened, they all just wanted to make jokes about it. Believe me, I’m all for jokes, but if that’s where you’re starting then the accuracy of anything from that point on is doomed.
With blogs and social media, people get a ton of their news and information second-hand and riddled with opinion, and because we want to move on to the next thing before we’re done with the first, nobody takes the time to check out the source.
No, it’s not like Gary Coleman dying at all. But this is a good example of what I was talking about.
“is about more that improving reading comprehension.” – THAN
“in private verses the image he presents” – VERSUS
And use some damn nouns
I found this to be a very important read. I don’t know how I’ll change, but it has certainly lit the fuse to something.
I really like this post. Blink talks about how too much information isn’t helpful, and this really goes to the root of that.
Your example of sex is perfect. The description you used isn’t enough to really describe what sex is and convey all the pertinent aspects, but it is a perfect starting point. From there it would be an interesting exercise to see how few words can be added and convey all the pertinent info.
My job could really benefit from thinking like this to reduce the amount of bullshit given, but it is strange (well not really) that the brass are actually pushing us in the opposite direction most of the time.
I took your advice and re-read this post. I certainly think I see where you’re coming from, and I agree that the conditions of internet discussion tend to create surface level misinterpretations that are more often a product of unrecognized personal bias than they are the actual content of the source.
Given this weakness, I had a couple questions. You said:
“Think: misinterpretation layered on top of misinterpretation, stripped from context and general understanding. Without the ability to separate the folds to look at the central, underpinning parts of an issue, you’re at the mercy of the comically distorted reality of the people mentioned above.”
What, then, is the value of a comments section of a blog like yours? How do you cultivate that value?
You suggested a few practical exercises (Cui Bono, contemptuous expressions). Does anything else come to mind?
These aren’t rhetorical, I’m just curious what your thoughts are.