I had a long and interesting chat last week with my partner. He knows I’m a bit obsessive about privacy and the social consequences of Google, Facebook, YouTube, and the rest of the Silicon Valley marauders. But somehow we had never quite connected the dots to the rise of populism and the erosion of trust – particularly that classical propaganda move, throwing up enough disinformation that people don’t trust anything and simply give up, either putting their trust in a leader whose lies are their lodestar (because he proclaims everything else to be fake and the work of their enemies) or assuming they have no power because there’s no way to know the facts. My partner pointed out that in my “last” Inside Higher Ed post I talked about the last ten years but not what’s in front us. So he persuaded me to make one last post – something short to encapsulate the ideas we’d talked about. I’m reposting it here.
We are in a global epistemological crisis, one that’s largely invisible by design.
The impact of the long-term cultivation of information channels that sow distrust of institutions and spread “alternative facts” has been magnified and globalized by the reckless power of Facebook, Google and other information intermediaries. These corporations sweep up the details of our lives to persuade, predict and nudge, undermining our freedom and safety while making it easy and profitable to spread hate, lies, anger and distrust, damaging our ability to agree on how we can arrive at factual truth and cultivate generosity and common understanding.
It will take a combination of efforts to overcome this crisis: political will, legislation, public policy, responsible technological improvements and civic engagement, as well as knowledge of the social and historical roots of our fractures, insights from information and media studies, and a broader definition of what it means to be information literate.
Higher education needs to do everything it can to bring its best traditions, knowledge, values and commitment to the public good to the struggle as we deal with this crisis. It matters.
We have much to contribute if we have the will.
PS: if you are interested in higher ed, information literacy, or the effects of technology on society to watch for the report coming from Project Information Literacy on January 15 – something I was excited to work on with PI Alison Head and the incredibly well-read Margy McMillan.