Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Thursday, December 09, 2021

Has the immediacy and ubiquity of the Internet made us dumber? In the sense of cumulative, in-depth knowledge, it probably has, as evidenced by the research habits (or lack thereof) of American students, who rely almost exclusively on online methods.

It’s pure laziness, if understandable laziness. Why trudge to a separate location and spend hours digging through hard copies, when a few keystrokes can yield hundreds of times more data?

The trick, of course, is how reliable the information is, either online or off. In general, the amount of investment put toward producing a source should (note that “should”) be a reflection of how much you can trust it. A printed book costs real money to make; therefore, you can assume that a good deal of research, editing and vetting went into producing the final version, which makes it worth the purchase price. With online material, there may very well be as much dedication behind it — but how can you tell? The brand or source is an obvious indicator: Something from a newspaper site is bound to be more reliable (and accountable) than, say, something posted on a discussion board.

These things are relative, depending on the source:

In a study on research habits, Wellesley College researchers Panagiotis Metaxas and Leah Graham found that fewer than 2% of students in one Wellesley computer science class bothered to use non-Internet sources to answer all six test questions.

And many students failed to check out multiple sources. For instance, 63% of students asked to list Microsoft Corp.’s top innovations only visited the company’s Web site in search of the answer.

Checking a corporate site for objective information on that same corporation? A bad, sad trend. It reminds me of a television commercial from a few months back, for some random SUV:

A couple are arguing about what their next car purchase should be. They’re sniping, following one another toward the kitchen table, when one finally declares, “Look, I’ve done the research!”

The other one shoots back, “So have I!”

Then, symbolically, both toss down their research material onto the kitchen table. Surprise! It turns out to the very same product brochure for the very same SUV.

Now, on a purely advertising level, this is great way to convey the brand’s effectiveness. Still, the first thought that came into my mind at this was, “What kind of idiots consider reading a fucking sales brochure to be real research? Especially on a multi-thousand-dollar decision like this?”

In light of the latest news, I guess the behavior displayed in that ad is truer to life than it ought to be.

Back to the behavior behind this research laxness:

It’s a paradox to some that so many young Americans can be so accepting of online information whose origin is unclear.

“Skepticism… is part of their lives, yet they tend to believe things fairly readily because it appears on the Internet,” said Roger Casey, who studies youths and pop culture at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

That’s the richest part of this. I guess it strikes to the root of how much the average person invests in the written word, regardless of where it’s actually written (or even who’s written it, or why). The Biblical pronouncement of “It is written…”, which equated into effective law, seems to hold true today, despite widespread literacy which should serve to dispell that impression.

Of course, it’s not just the kids who are slackin’:

Accuracy can be crucial when lives and property are at stake — and older generations certainly don’t have any particular claim to it.

In 2000, a prescribed burn calculated using incorrect information online spread to a wildfire that left more than 400 families homeless in Los Alamos, N.M.

Adults who should know better get duped, too.

Georgia Tech professor Colin Potts said he recently received by e-mail a photograph said to be a 1954 projection of what a home computer would look like in 2004. Instead of the small boxes we know of today, the image shows a giant contraption that resembles an airplane cockpit with a large steering wheel.

“I thought this was hilarious and filed it away in a scrapbook for my lecture next semester on the perils of technology forecasting,” Potts said. “I also forwarded it to several people. Unfortunately, as another colleague informed me by e-mail a few minutes later, it’s a hoax.”

Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald Associates, said many older Internet users, familiar with the editorial review that books and newspapers go through, may assume incorrectly that Web sites also undergo such reviews.

This echos what I said above, as well as my earlier criticism of using Wikipedia as a reliable information source.

So is speed and ease of information retrieval more important than accuracy? I guess we’ll have to go through a transition period, where most people will struggle with how to go about finding the right answer:

In the end, it’s just a matter of adjusting to how information gets around now that the Internet has revolutionized communication.

Every new medium has its challenges, said Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., yet society adapts.

Referring to the 1903 Western “The Great Train Robbery,” Saffo said audience members “actually ducked when the train came out on the screen. Today you won’t even raise an eyebrow.”

- Costa Tsiokos, Thu 12/09/2021 05:30:26 PM
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  1. MEASURING TECH LITERACY

    ETS certainly has got the mindshare market cornered when it comes to adapting to the digital-information age. Last summer, the testing center led a study on the lack of rigorous research habits among Web-enabled college students. Now, as a follow-up, …

    Trackback by Population Statistic — 02/02/2021 @ 08:36:06 PM

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