Tara Brabazon: Ready meals for the mind

We live in an environment of too much information, and need to develop a more discerning intellectual palate

December 16, 2009

A new menace is threatening to overwhelm our cities and towns. It is not the percentage of women wearing a dress larger than size 14. It is not the beer gut protruding over the belt of contemporary masculinity. It is not the loss of fitness in young people through playing on Wiis rather than with footballs. Instead, the problem – so clearly revealed by Kate Moss – is that our culture ridicules extra flesh but not excessive ignorance. Why is eating more important than reading?

One of the causes of obesity is the proliferation of food around us. A study of eating habits from Brian Wansink’s Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University reveals that we make more than 200 choices about food each day.

We could be thinking about the Strictly Come Dancing Final, climate change or the pile of marking on our desks.

Instead, Wansink shows that our thoughts are filled with food. Do we duck into Subway for a sandwich? Marks and Spencer for a healthy three-bean salad wrap? What the hell – let’s get an extra-large stuffed-crust pepperoni pizza with garlic bread, and a large chardonnay while you are at it. The energy and time spent making these food choices is enormous. Even when not eating, we are thinking about eating. Only the truly determined and disciplined can avoid being overweight in such an environment.

One factor is common to all successful diet plans: they restrict the number of choices that people make about food during the day. While nutritionists criticise the Atkins, South Beach or Cabbage Soup diets, these eating plans are successful, at least in the short term. Success is achieved by restricting not only the amount of food but also the number of choices.

Wansink’s ideas can be applied more widely. It is a powerful metaphor and model. We live in an environment not only of abundant food but an excess of information. We make hundreds of choices each day about which book to select from the shelf, website to visit or podcast to download for a train trip.

The scale of these choices explains the success of Google. It is the Atkins Diet of search engines. Through the application of an algorithm, websites are ranked, organised and delivered. Choices – and thinking about those choices – decrease. Google restricts, reduces and limits.

Algorithms such as Google’s PageRank are bathed in ideologies of logic and rigour, but the decision to validate a “scientific” method to restrict our engagement with information has social consequences. Systems that start in (and are justified by) empiricism and positivism build structures of social exclusion and differentiation.

An example of this pattern emerged on 25 November this year when a series of blogs presented photographs of Michelle Obama with the face of an ape. A well-educated woman was reconstructed through physiognomic categories that would have made Cesare Lombroso blush. Because many bloggers linked to the site in horror or because of racism, the image rose to be the top-ranked return in Google Images for the First Lady, as supplied by PageRank. The firm received indignant requests to remove the disturbingly doctored photograph.

Throughout the day, Google public relations staff deflected criticism, describing the company as a search engine provider and not responsible for content. In other words, because Google uses an algorithm, it has no responsibility for the information returned to users. Inevitably, by the end of the day the image was removed with an attendant apology.

Google was right to blame “us” – web users – for either blatant racism or rubbernecking at blatant racism. “We” searched for the image. “We” linked to it. “We” viewed it. “We” are to blame. On closer assessment though, this justification is like blaming a child who accidentally wanders into an adult entertainment centre and does not close their eyes when confronted by pornography.

Such a moment shows the cost of information obesity. The problem is not Google. Search engines are not the end of the rainbow of human progress. Instead, the issue is our willingness to allow an algorithm to replace our responsibility to gain sufficient media and information literacies to enable independent, conscious choices. This is intellectual laziness and flabbiness.

Google is the start of an information journey, not the end. To find better information necessitates movement between search engines, widening our vocabulary and recognising the innovative writers in our field. Even the shift from Google to Google Scholar lifts the quality of the information found.

Think about the metaphors used to describe engagement with the web: scrolling, surfing and linking. Each describes superficial movement through material. The question is how to stop snacking on the crust of knowledge and develop advanced interpretative skills.

Using the Directory of Open-Access Journals is like eating organic chicken. Google Scholar is the fruit and vegetable section of the information environment. Google itself is an international information smorgasbord. We could choose to eat salad. However, you and I know that it is more pleasant to keep returning to the dessert table for another piece of chocolate cake.

It is easier to read blogs than academic articles. It is easier to watch a YouTube video of another drunken bride falling over at a wedding than it is to watch an important lecture recorded with a static camera. The cost of choice is that we stay in intellectual environments where we feel happy, understood, satiated, literate and untroubled by “foreign” ideas. The starting point of learning is to have the courage to read defiantly and courageously, jumping into ideas that will confuse, unsettle and upset our values and experience. Challenge builds learning. Conformity and comfort enable ignorance.

The advantage of Google constructing a pathway through information is that it prevents inexperienced students and citizens becoming frozen and overwhelmed when selecting relevant sources. They do not have to choose. The clean interface of Google automates their relationship with websites. It prevents users from making the troubling realisation that they have no idea how to find information. That is why Google’s algorithm seems to have more value than librarians or teachers: not because it is benevolent or correct, but because it simplifies choices.

Instead of working hard(er) to find complex references and emerging scholarship, it is easier to follow the algorithm, follow the crowd and access the links on the first page of Google. Our food choices are similar. At the end of a long day, we can either prepare a vegetarian risotto or dial “P” for pizza. Simply because an action or behaviour is easy does not mean it is beneficial.

My thoughts returned to information obesity during an MA seminar for media literacies. Working with students in this course is the great joy of my academic year. They are engaged, provocative, thoughtful and chatty. It is my privilege to teach them and I am fortunate to be their professor. In the last seminar of the module, one of my students mentioned her intellectual paralysis when confronted by information choices each day. Will she read her course guide? Will she search online? Will she go to the library? She checks her telephone for messages. She returns to her Facebook profile, which she “accidentally” leaves open most of her working day.

After working through her patterns, we realised that my student makes choices by not making choices: this is Wansink’s “mindless margin”. She worries about the hours she spends messaging, commenting and updating and asks me to help her with time management. Actually, time management is not her problem: information management is.

If she closed Facebook after a designated 30 minutes a day, constructed daily learning goals and followed the recommendations of teachers and librarians while monitoring citations of important authors via Google Scholar, her information environment would become less threatening and chaotic. There would be no metaphoric Mars Bar calling her name. Instead, she would develop experience in planning and organising her intellectual environment through expertise, refereeing and differentiating between leisure and learning, time passing and time management.

By increasing the opportunities to read refereed scholarship and write evocative assignments from it, students improve their marks and decrease stress. By reducing dependence on the crack pipe of social networking, higher-quality information could become the foundation of the intellectual diet. Deciding to avoid the information equivalent of chocolate cake and ice cream would ensure that space is available for the fruits of scholarship.

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