By Nadia Schmidtke,
An abundance of information within our reach is a dream that few could’ve imagined half a century ago. But how could we have known that knowing too much could be more blinding than enlightening?
In this era of Google, not knowing about something topical is a moral failure. Not having an opinion about it is just as bad. The adage “those who stand for nothing fall for anything” warns us that we’d better pick a side or we’ll default into foolishness and gullibility. To make the right choices, have sound opinions, and participate in adult conversations we have to stay in the loop. Thankfully our devices make that easy.
But how enlightening is the information at our fingertips? You don’t need to be an epistemologist to understand the effect of social media, and the internet at large, on the information we consume. Clever algorithms feed us news and content it knows we’ll like and trap us in the infamous echo chamber. If that is not enough to keep our attention, outrageous and inflammatory headlines will instigate us into voicing our opinions and spending time online.
One antidote to finding balanced information is to dig a little further than the headlines on our feeds. It is worth seeking out a wider perspective by learning more about the subject behind a trending headline. It can involve a Wikipedia dive into History, Computer Science, Economics, and even Psychology, to name a small, small few.
A healthy amount of content taught in 101 classes at colleges and universities can be learned for free, or for the price of a few takeouts. Due to the bountiful pickings of online courses, YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles, and apps, you can learn about any subject you can think of – and in detail. It’s an incredible feat of technology that makes information accessible to most people instead of an elite few. But unlike in educational institutions, it’s up to us to design the curriculum and, metaphorically speaking, decide when we graduate.
Perhaps headlines about cryptocurrency prompt us to learn about the blockchain. We might even sign-up for one of the numerous online courses online to learn more. Next thing, we’re learning about FinTech, investing, and the mechanisms driving the global economy. All the while working a day job and trying to eat more greens. I may be speaking from experience.
But even this valiant effort to go beyond sensational headlines has an unintended effect on our knowledge and opinions.
Digging deeper can make us surer of our opinions while still lacking key information – and we might not even know it. ‘101-ism’ is the term Economics lecturer, James Sawler uses to describe the phenomenon. It’s where freshmen Economics students are overly-confident in their Economics prowess after earning their first credit. They “reach a threshold of knowledge”, as Sawler puts it, and believe they know enough to solve complex real-world issues. Only they don’t know that they don’t know the whole story.
Sawler’s 101-ism is a phenomenon that comfortably describes the side effect of internet deep diving. It’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect of internet sleuthing. One big difference to Sawler’s students is that we don’t and can’t make it to graduation – so to speak. It’s impossible to learn and become omnipotent experts behind every topic behind the ever-flowing news headlines. So the would-be solution of learning more and more until you gain perspective doesn’t work for internet 101-ism.
Maybe it was this overconfidence that led me to make made crypto investments. I felt like I knew a good amount. I knew more than the people around me. Of course, things didn’t turn out so well.
Other than making bad decisions, internet 101-ism can narrow our perspective and encourage over-analysis of every detail of our lives. Not only that, it gets in the way of connecting with others with empathy.
101-ism was coined by Douglas Coupland in 1991 in his book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Coupland defined 101-ism as “the tendency to pick apart, often in minute detail, all aspects of life using half-understood pop psychology.” Something in me protests the label of my foray into popular psychology as “half-understood”. But that’s just it – without a long-term study of the subject, I just don’t know what I don’t know.
Another problem is that Internet 101-ism influences our relational landscape by changing what we value. In some circles, being ‘in the know’ holds a lot of social currency. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to discuss what we’ve learned and compare notes. Though, other times talking to others about topical issues can feel like a show-down of who knows more history, theories, and quotes behind topical issues. All while keeping your day job.
Valuing a display of breadth and depth of knowledge puts less focus on our collective lived experience. By throwing around Jargon, dates, and theories with certainty we often dismiss or minimize our lived experience.
Let’s say you complain about clothes being expensive and are met the response, “Well, clothes are about 6% cheaper now than they were before the pandemic”. While true, I still can’t afford to buy new clothes. It doesn’t change much about my lived experience besides making me feel dismissed. Being knowledgeable can be an isolating experience.
It can feel helpful to put our facts on display. But 101-ism overshadows the legitimacy of the human experience in favour of what we believe is true. It is always necessary to consider how what we think we know is related to our human experience, and that of others. Not only is it a good practice of empathy, but it gives us a bit of space from the pressure to know, and know better.
There’s no way to escape the informational landscape we find ourselves in. At times we’ll have to contend with overly confident people who think they know the truth behind the headlines. But I offer that identifying 101-ism is a way to get a handle on it as we navigate how technology redefines knowledge. And perhaps we can put less pressure on ourselves to know everything. There’s a certain freedom and wisdom in knowing that we don’t know.