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Does social media endanger knowledge?

Integrating Technology colleagues,

Some of us believe that the cultural shift from text to video and images offers learners more paths to knowledge, especially for those who have difficulty reading text. Another point of view, however, is that this shift to visual entertainment undermines curiosity, knowledge-seeking, and depth of knowledge and understanding.  This Wired article, "How Social Media Endangers Knowledge," argues that position, and points out that the Wikipedia is endangered not by lack of funds but by a lack of growth in articles. Do you agree that this is an indicator that "The very idea of knowledge itself is in danger"?

The article's author, Hossein Derakhshan, writes, "As Neil Postman noted in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the rise of television introduced not just a new medium but a new discourse: a gradual shift from a typographic culture to a photographic one, which in turn meant a shift from rationality to emotions, exposition to entertainment. In an image-centered and pleasure-driven world, Postman noted, there is no place for rational thinking, because you simply cannot think with images. It is text that enables us to “uncover lies, confusions and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another.”

Do you agree that we have shifted from a print culture to an image and video culture, and that this shift endangers knowledge? Do you agree that we cannot think using only images? Can only text (and perhaps oral debate) enable us to “uncover lies, confusions and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense... to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another”?

Why or why not?  What are the implications for teaching and learning?

David J. Rosen, Moderator

Integrating Technology CoP


rwessel51's picture

“Do you agree that we have shifted from a print culture to an image and video culture, and that this shift endangers knowledge?”

Yes, we are shifting from a print culture to an image and video culture. Watching tends toward passive, receptive involvement while reading can be more active. Reading allows you to pause, reflect, and question. This is not so easy with watching.

Does this shift endanger knowledge?

That depends on what you watch and how you watch it. If you fill your time watching pure entertainment videos, or videos promoting propaganda, conspiracy theories, urban legends, and other memes as truth, your knowledge of the world is definitely being damaged. But if you watch high quality stuff, such as PBS’ recent “The Vietnam War,” you’re learning even more. And if you watch it on an online device that allows you to hit the pause button, reflect, and use a search engine to research names, places and events mentioned in the video, the learning experience can be richer than with text. It’s one thing to read an account of someone’s experiences during the war, another to see their facial expressions and hear the emotions in their voice while they describe them.

And if you include the ability to share comments on articles in online versions of newspapers, online newspapers have also become a kind of social media that can be a much more powerful learning experience than their print versions.

Edward Latham's picture

When the radio, motion pictures, television and then the Internet came into society, each was met with concerns about how this new technology was going to corrupt or destroy knowledge. Every single one of these technologies offered new knowledge and has been used as a tool for new learning by millions of people. Like any tool, there are people that abuse the tool and cause damage to themselves or to others. I have personally experienced many a sore thumb using a hammer inappropriately and I have likewise probably wasted hundreds of hours of my life watching The Simpsons. 

Throughout our history, in spite of any technology tools being introduced, it has been the encouragement of creative thinking that has helped to advance knowledge in society and at individual levels. When we look at how our educational systems promote free thought or creative thought over time, there have been different levels of success over time. Our current systems promote compliance and singular thinking which are both the antithesis of finding knowledge. We do not have educational systems that promote positive interactions with others in order to learn from each other. 

As a visual learner, I appreciate the many ways now open to me to easily learn many things I have interest in. I know most of my problem solving is done through imagery in my mind. As such, I personally disagree with "We cannot think using only images"

I think oral, or digital discussions are an undervalued tool available today that could enhance the spread of knowledge and accelerate the "uncovering of lies". Many of our current educational environments are sadly not offering oral discussions with multiple points of view. Most often, the focus is on "sit down, be quiet and listen to me" as the one correct answer is studied to ensure it can be recalled on the test when seen in a particular format. Open discussion in which all people can offer justifications for their thoughts in a civil manner while respecting the thoughts and justifications of others is a crucially missing component today. We have many with almost fanatical devotion to a thought without justification. We have others that turn to attack any that offer different points of view. Still others immediately disrespect any who simply offer a different perspective. It is the decrease in our ability to discuss with others that is killing knowledge today, not social media nor our increasing video heavy resources. 

Josh Anderson's picture

When I saw the title of the post, I said to myself, "That's Neil Postman!"  Sure enough the author was drawing on him.  If you haven't read Amusing Ourselves to Death, there's no book about how society works that I recommend more highly.  It came out in 1985 and is still incredibly prescient.  If you can't spare time for the whole book, just check out the preface, it's the best preface I've ever read.  I think he's mostly right. 

The key thesis from the book that sticks with me is the idea of whether the user of a medium is passive or active.  Postman says that that video and audio are passive mediums but text requires an active and engaged reader.  I think he's mostly right on that, but new technologies are making it easier to use video and audio more actively.  One example for instance is that with a tape recorder or a video tape skimming took a bunch of time, but once we got to tracks on CDs and now that little circle that lets you drag to the exact second you want to move to, it's easier to be an active consumer of video and audio.  The real enemy in the book is TV.  It'd be a very interesting exercise to rethink the book with YouTube in mind.  YouTube is certainly not the same as TV.

If you've read the book, the phrase, "And now, this!" applies more to social media than any medium in history maybe.  Information is now normally presented without context and without follow up.