Don’t fear complexity

This is a summary of my Lilac 18 keynote on the changing character of ‘information literacy’ – the talk was entitled “Posthuman literacies: reframing the relationship between information, technology and identity”. This was described as ‘the most cyberpunk title for a lilac talk ever’ (which I’m quite proud of) but could have been rephrased as “Don’t Fear Complexity”. There is a video of the talk and a shorter write-up from Shelia Webber.

Section 1: Two ‘new’ identities

As with anything relating to education it’s important to frame the ‘self’ before defining values and approaches. This is especially important with information literacy as the relationship between our identities and the information we engage with is now tightly interwoven. We can no longer work on the principle that we a neutral seekers of facts and truth traveling through a disinterested taxonomy of information. We have to frame the self or risk getting taken for an ideological ride.

Technoself

What it means to be human involves an ongoing incorporation of technology. Whether this is books, reading glasses, cars, the Web, connected devices etc. We (those who can afford to) quickly build the ‘new’ into social norms. For example, it’s now increasingly inappropriate to ask a fellow human a question which could easily be Googled. I encountered this at the doctors when I explained my mild symptoms and he replied “Why didn’t you just look this up online…?”.

This is the technoself: when we consider our phones, laptops, tablets etc – they are not just devices, they are an extension of who we are and an element of what it means to be human. The educational implication being that when we teach information literacy or advise on digital practices we are hoping the student will extend or change their who they are. Identity, information and technology flow into, and through, each other. The best way I’ve seen this put is that we are not addicted to our phones, we are addicted to being social. 

Dataself

The notion of the dataself has recently exploded into the public consciousness via the Cambridge Analytica story. I suspect the reason that story has resonated is as much to do with people feeling they have had something stolen as it is about fears around the erosion of democracy. Even so, it has made it abundantly clear that our interactions online generate a dataself or ‘shadow profile’. This highlights again that Facebook and others don’t simply ‘connect people’, they also connect people to organisations, institutions and businesses in ways which are unseen and anything but neutral.

The implication for information literacy is that it must reveal these mechanisms and reframe our relationship with information.

Section 2: Two forms of information

My response to the dataself is the need to now characterise information into two broad categories –

  1. Information we actively seek out
  2. Information we receive without consciously asking a question

In some senses category one has traditionally been the remit of information literacy while category two has mainly fallen under media literacy. I would argue that any critical approach to the Web has to combine the two.

The (Dave) White Ignorance Cycle

I’ve condensed the negative aspects of category two into a diagram which mirrors Kolb’s learning cycle (which I have never been particularly comfortable with). It is designed to capture what I see as a relatively new form of information illiteracy which might be better thought of as a lack of digital fluency.

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This process drives polarisation and cedes power via polaristion to both the providers of the platform and those paying for the targeted message. In short, we have a responsibility to make this cycle visible to students to equip them with the critical faculties they need to retain any real agency in the networked environment.

Section 3: It’s not about facts

“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility.” Jacob Bronowski

Firstly, let me be clear, I’m not a total relativist, I do believe that information can be more, or less, ‘true’. What I’m more interested in though is regularly questioning why we believe something to be true and, most importantly, focusing on how we respond to information. While information literacy clearly isn’t only about validating sources to establish ‘factiness’ I am concerned that this is how is often comes across. I worry that implicit in information literacy is the notion that if we could all understand how to separate facts from lies then the world would be a better place.

This implication plays into the hands of those that secure power through polarisation as it is, in of itself, a polarising approach. We can fall into the trap of arguing over ‘who is right’ rather than respecting and understanding diversity, different perspectives and experiences. Much of what society runs on is socially constructed, negotiated knowledge and understanding. There is very little in the day-to-day which is utterly objective. I’d argue that totally objective information is only that which has no moral or ethical implications. As a corollary of  that I suspect our desire to define something as a fact is often an attempt to portray our worldview as the ‘natural order’ and therefore not morally questionable. Mark Fisher put it well:

“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” Mark Fisher

As I alluded to earlier, the key to emancipation over polarisation is to always frame the self as integral to the process. I proposed the following practical response to this:

“Questioning why you agree with something is more valuable than bolstering your views on what you disagree with”

This is my antidote to ‘Truthiness’, a problem which has been amplified by the way in which the network facilitates both individualism and homophily.

“Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I *feel* it to be true, but that *I* feel it to be true.” Stephen Colbert

Truthiness is especially dangerous where the ignorance cycle has unconsciously and uncritically maneuvered an individual into ‘truths’ or a false consciousness which serve those in power.

Section 4: So what?

My conclusion is unashamedly educational.

At my institution, the University of the Arts London, we see the value in uncertainty. In many of our courses it is important that our students are in a liminal state for much of the time within which they are not quite sure of what they know. This is a key aspect of the process of creativity and it’s also central to my reframing, or extension of, information literacy. Questioning our self, our motivations and methods, for seeking and validating information is our only chance of maintaining our agency within complexity. Not being afraid of being immersed in complexity requires understanding the value of uncertainty. This is all the more important where we receive information as an effect of our interactions. To ask how what we engage with has arrived in front of us and why we are comfortable with it (in the context of our identity and position) has to be central to what it means to critically evaluate.

To maintain the agency of our students (and ourselves) and not fall into the trap of assuming a ‘natural order’ which just so happens to be our current worldview we must reveal, not simplify, complexity. In tandem with this we must provide the critical tools to navigate complexity without denying it.

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The new definition of Information Literacy which CILIP Information Literacy Group launched at Lilac 18 is well aligned with much of what I have discussed here.

 “The ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use. It empowers us as citizens to reach and express informed views and to engage fully with society.”

The next challenge is to develop pragmatic ways to respond to the new definition in educational terms.

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