Passing the buck

Part of my routine, accompanying the second cup of coffee, is my morning browse through the 100 or so items that have accumulated in Google Reader overnight. As any of you who use it would know, it’s a very useful way to stay on top of peripheral interest areas, so long as you keep a firm editorial hand.

What I mean is that – as with most sources of information – if you don’t pay attention to filtering, the signals are soon drowned out by noise, and something quite interesting from one source can get drowned out by 10 links from some blogger who should really save his one-liners and links for Twitter (or keep them to himself).

But if you are selective about which sources you follow, I think there’s no better way to stay on top of things, in that you get to select a trusted source, or editor, and use her to filter a specific subject area for you. PZ Myers, for example, will (most of the time) point out some emerging squabble of interest to sceptics about as quickly as anyone else, and usually provides some food for thought to go with it.

Often your sources will direct you to others, and may in the end supplant the original source in your feed through being more insightful, or through paying more attention. And attention is the point that I am meandering towards: I know quite a few people who have embraced the interwebs so completely – and in one respect, so uncritically (see point 2, below) – that they are burying themselves in noise, while making noises about how great Web 2.0 is for navigating through the information overload we have little choice but respond to.

For example, consider a user who uses Evernote, Digg, Muti, Google Reader, Delicious, Twitter, and Facebook (they exist). These services are kludged together according to some personal heuristic, and the user thinks they’ve got their finger on some pulse or other. I doubt that they do, for two primary reasons:

  1. Assuming you’ve got a job of some sort, I doubt that you’ve got the time to read and digest things from all those sources, or that your heuristic for using them all together is at all efficient. In terms of time-management, calendars and the like, it also appears to be the case that such users are far less efficient than people who simply carry a diary.
  2. Some of these sources are explicitly democratic in nature (Digg, Muti), and I’m not sure that their users have stopped to consider whether that’s a sensible approach to knowing what to pay attention to.

To expand on point 2: knowledge is not a democracy. And you don’t need to be a teacher or a university lecturer to know that you usually have no reason to care one jot about what the majority of people believe, or find interesting. So why, given that we usually hope to believe things on the basis of evidence (yes, yes, I know this sounds somewhat idealistic), do some of us wait for a community to tell us what’s interesting, where that community is not necessarily a community of experts?

There’s a key distinction between following a particular group or community, whether through mailing lists, forums or whatever, and relying on a completely unknown group of people to tell you what’s worth paying attention to. Wikipedia has learnt this lesson, and now subjects articles to some sort of editorial oversight, by contrast to the original free-for-all model, and in most of our daily lives, we have learnt this lesson too.

I don’t buy books because they are on a best-seller list, although their presence there may occasionally prompt me to read reviews from people I trust, which may sometimes lead me to buy the book. To simply follow the best-seller list as a guide to what to read would be passing the buck, in that I’ve completely delegated the responsibility of what to pay attention to (in that regard) not only to people I don’t know, and have no reason to trust, but to everybody – thereby embracing a conception of self as lowest-common-denominator.

That doesn’t seem good enough, or a useful or responsible way to read.

P.S. Although it’s not on quite the same topic, a related post that readers may enjoy/appreciate is something Dr. Spurt posted in 2008, Technology and the economics of reading 2.o.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.