Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘media’

09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Wisdom in the Age of Information and the Importance of Storytelling in Making Sense of the World: An Animated Essay

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Thoughts on navigating the open sea of knowledge.

For my part in the 2014 Future of Storytelling Summit, I had the pleasure of collaborating with animator Drew Christie — the talent behind that wonderful short film about Mark Twain and the myth of originality — on an animated essay that I wrote and narrated, exploring a subject close to my heart and mind: the question of how we can cultivate true wisdom in the age of information and why great storytellers matter more than ever in helping us make sense of an increasingly complex world. It comes as an organic extension of the seven most important life-learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings. Full essay text below — please enjoy.

We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.

This barrage of readily available information has also created an environment where one of the worst social sins is to appear uninformed. Ours is a culture where it’s enormously embarrassing not to have an opinion on something, and in order to seem informed, we form our so-called opinions hastily, based on fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding.

“Knowledge,” Emerson wrote, “is the knowing that we can not know.”

To grasp the importance of this, we first need to define these concepts as a ladder of understanding.

At its base is a piece of information, which simply tells us some basic fact about the world. Above that is knowledge — the understanding of how different bits of information fit together to reveal some truth about the world. Knowledge hinges on an act of correlation and interpretation. At the top is wisdom, which has a moral component — it is the application of information worth remembering and knowledge that matters to understanding not only how the world works, but also how it should work. And that requires a moral framework of what should and shouldn’t matter, as well as an ideal of the world at its highest potentiality.

This is why the storyteller is all the more urgently valuable today.

A great storyteller — whether a journalist or editor or filmmaker or curator — helps people figure out not only what matters in the world, but also why it matters. A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom.

Susan Sontag once said that “reading sets standards.” Storytelling not only sets standards but, at its best, makes us want to live up to them, to transcend them.

A great story, then, is not about providing information, though it can certainly inform — a great story invites an expansion of understanding, a self-transcendence. More than that, it plants the seed for it and makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding — of the world, of our place in it, of ourselves, of some subtle or monumental aspect of existence.

At a time when information is increasingly cheap and wisdom increasingly expensive, this gap is where the modern storyteller’s value lives.

I think of it this way:

Information is having a library of books on shipbuilding. Knowledge applies that to building a ship. Access to the information — to the books — is a prerequisite for the knowledge, but not a guarantee of it.

Once you’ve built your ship, wisdom is what allows you to sail it without sinking, to protect it from the storm that creeps up from the horizon in the dead of the night, to point it just so that the wind breathes life into its sails.

Moral wisdom helps you tell the difference between the right direction and the wrong direction in steering the ship.

A great storyteller is the kindly captain who sails her ship with tremendous wisdom and boundless courage; who points its nose in the direction of horizons and worlds chosen with unflinching idealism and integrity; who brings us somewhat closer to the answer, to our particular answer, to that grand question: Why are we here?

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Click Like You Give a Damn: The Politics of Linkbait and How Feeding on Buzz Ensures a Malnourished Soul

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“We have to start shaping the world we want with our clicks, because clicking is a public act.”

When we feed on buzz, are we really nourishing our souls?

Most intelligent, motivated people believe that we shape the world with our choices — that subverting our convictions to some this-is-just-the-way-it-is ideology is unacceptable, disempowering resignation. And yet even the best-intentioned people often get caught in believing this on an abstract level, while making passive, semi-automatic choices in our daily lives that float us further from rather than closer to the world we say we desire. Just like all drivers think that traffic is other people, we tend to consider our culture’s questionable products the result of other people’s questionable choices, forgetting that culture is always an aggregate of which we are invariably a part.

In this excellent and urgently necessary short TED talk, journalist, community organizer and political commentator Sally Kohn takes on the epidemic of clickbait, reminding us with equal parts wit and wisdom that our mindless media gluttony, which Alan Watts aptly termed “orgasm without release” more than half a century ago, is shaping the very culture we so readily sneer at — because, lest we forget, clickbait is to culture what cliché is to language and its cumulative eradication is just as much the sum total of our individual choices.

We all say we hate this crap. The question is whether you’re willing to make a personal sacrifice to change it. I don’t mean giving up the Internet. I mean changing the way you click, because clicking is a public act. It’s no longer the case that a few powerful elites control all the media and the rest of us are just passive receivers. Increasingly, we’re all the media. I used to think, oh, okay, I get dressed up, I put on a lot of makeup, I go on television, I talk about the news. That is a public act of making media. And then I go home and I browse the web and I’m reading Twitter, and that’s a private act of consuming media. I mean, of course it is. I’m in my pajamas.

Wrong.

Everything we blog, everything we Tweet, and everything we click is a public act of making media. We are the new editors. We decide what gets attention based on what we give our attention to. That’s how the media works now. There’s all these hidden algorithms that decide what you see more of and what we all see more of based on what you click on, and that in turn shapes our whole culture.

[...]

In an increasingly noisy media landscape, the incentive is to make more noise to be heard, and that tyranny of the loud encourages the tyranny of the nasty.

It does not have to be that way. It does not. We can change the incentive. For starters, there are two things we can all do. First, don’t just stand by the sidelines when you see someone getting hurt. If someone is being abused online, do something. Be a hero. This is your chance. Speak up. Speak out. Be a good person. Drown out the negative with the positive. And second, we’ve got to stop clicking on the lowest-common-denominator, bottom-feeding linkbait.

[...]

If what gets the most clicks wins, then we have to start shaping the world we want with our clicks, because clicking is a public act. So click responsibly.

You can, and should, follow Kahn on Twitter and support her work here.

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19 AUGUST, 2014

“Don’t Read Books!” A 12th-Century Zen Poem

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“It’s annoying for others to have to hear you.”

We live in a culture that often romanticizes books as the tender and exhilarating love-making to the “orgasm without release” of Alan Watts’s admonition against our media gluttony — an antidote to the frantic multitasking of modern media, refuge from the alleged evils of technology, an invitation for slow, reflective thinking in a fast-paced age obsessed with productivity. Books, Kafka memorably asserted, are “the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Given I spend the majority of my waking hours reading and writing about books, I have certainly bought into that romantic notion. But everything, it turns out, is a matter of context: Imagine my amusement in chancing upon a poem titled “Don’t Read Books!” in the altogether wonderful slim volume Zen Poems: Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets (public library).

Penned by Chinese poet Yang Wanli in the 12th century, the poem, translated by Jonathan Chaves, is a renunciation of books as a distraction from the core Buddhist virtue of mindful presence:

Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away
leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
But if your lips constantly make a sound
like an insect chirping in autumn,
you will only turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you.

It’s so much better
to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.
It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

It might seem like a ridiculous notion to us today, loaded with heavy cultural irony, but it offers a poignant reminder that if books, which we presently worship as the most meditative form of media, were in the twelfth century what videogames or Twitter are in the twenty-first, then a few dozen generations into the future — provided humanity still exists — the very forms we dismiss as spiritually worthless distractions today may come to be seen as the strongest anchors to the fabric of cultural history.

Zen Poems — which, I should add, features an elegant cover design by the great Barbara deWilde — is a delight in its entirety. Complement it with some thoughts on how to live with presence in the age of productivity.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.