How do you know what you do not know?

Citation metadata

Author: Tara Brabazon
Date: Nov. 2012
From: Collected Magazine(Issue 8)
Publisher: School Library Association of New Zealand Aotearoa
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,101 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

For me, the pivotal question when considering the future of teaching and learning is, "How do you know what you do not know?" It is relatively easy to summon and share what we remember and understand. But it is a key moment in life--and learning--to recognize the gaps in our knowledge and then realize that we must move beyond ourselves and our environment to welcome interventions, questioning, critique and challenge.

Teachers and librarians are integral to such a project. Enabling information literacy is the method. But the problem in fulfilling our interventionist goals is that social media creates a culture of self-satisfaction, selfishness and comfort. Indeed, social media are not singular in this environment of inward contentment rather than outward challenge. The myth of abundance--the myth of choice--dominates the narratives of both liberal democracy and capitalism. (1) Shopping becomes a proxy for thinking and searching substitutes for reading. While 'we' are looking down at our smart phone rather than up at the world, freedom to blog becomes an acceptable substitute for freedom to learn.

It is time to transform our freedoms. Instead of the freedom to access information, there is the right to learn information literacy. There have been some remarkable critiques in the last decade of information excess, user generated content, web 2.0 and the read-write web. Many have been staunch, strident and opinionated. Others have been concerned or worried about the cultural movements for which the read-write web is the channel, conduit or platform. One of the earliest and shrillest reviews was from Andrew Keen. His Cult of the Amateur (2) affirmed the rights of artists, journalists, writers and academics to protect their intellectual property. He was critical of the loss of expertise from a blog-infused culture. He was not 'against' the internet or the web, but wanted to return quality control to digital environments.

My critique is different from Keen's arguments. It is not the end of civilization if 'the audience' becomes 'the author.' Keen did not like bloggers or people taking pictures with their mobile phones. This proliferation of content does not worry me. But it must be attended by a necessity to improve our information literacy--improve our interpretative capacity--to sort and sift this material. An explosion of blogs, updates, comments, photographs and footage is not a concern. But experiencing a glut of information without the capacity to sort and shape it is a disaster for education. Simply because there is a lot of nonsense online does not mean it has to be read. The more serious question is whether--through this explosion of low quality data--the capacity to judge, interpret and evaluate is being worn down by the scale and scope of basic material. Put another way, if citizens and students read a large amount of simple, self-evident, commonsensical material, is their capacity reduced to read and write at a higher level?

There are many methods to structurally create barriers to block the sending or receiving of low quality information. (3) For example, selecting delivery systems is a form of information management. When a platform is selected, producers are making a series of decisions about who they will not reach and the type of information they will not convey. It is not efficient to choose Twitter to convey complex ideas. However as a pointer to richer information sources, it is excellent. If a producer wants information that can be scanned at speed, sonic media is a mistake. Scanning print on paper or screens is a faster way to glean information. For abstract ideas that slow down users and defamiliarize the relationship with information, then sound is ideal. Marshall McLuhan argued that "any technology creates a new environment. It creates a total numbness in our senses." (4) However, by withdrawing some sensory experiences, numbness reduces. Consciousness and choice returns.

In an era of proliferating platforms, which platform is the best carrier for this data and--more importantly--which of our senses are best activated to engage with this information is a key decision in terms of learning and teaching. When selecting a platform, decisions are made about who will not receive the data and what type of information will not be conveyed. Jack Koumi stated that "each medium has its distinctive presentational attributes, its own strengths and its weaknesses. These distinctions must be fully exploited by choosing different treatments of the topic for different media." (5) Therefore, strategic decisions about information, media and audience must be made.

The difficulty with the read-write web is that it is based on fragmentation and individuality. Choices about audience, information and media platform selection are automated. We choose to talk with people like ourselves. They are our 'friends' on Facebook. We 'follow' them on Twitter. Similarly, communities become increasingly specialized in content as they geographically disperse. Nicholas Carr, in The Big Switch, (6) probes the movement from offline to online environments. Carr argues that we are all drawn to people like ourselves. Fans of Justin Bieber talk with other fans of Justin Bieber. (7) Star Trek fans chat to Star Trek fans. More concerningly, citizens with extreme ideas bond closely with those also holding extreme ideas. In some disciplinary fields, this behaviour is explained through subcultural theory. (8) A goth wears black clothes and whitened makeup, but this appearance is naturalized when communing with other Goths. But beyond this naturalization of community behaviour, Carr confirms that when extreme views are shared by a community, they become more extreme. Through the deterritorialized connectivity of the Web, an individual who holds highly marginal views in Galway, Cape Town or Dunedin can find a geographically dispersed community sharing their beliefs. Before the internet, there were citizens with extreme views. But they were isolated, managed and controlled by legal and social restrictions. Now deterritorialized communities with extreme views can find each other and bond. The online relationships and communication normalizes behaviour, language and ideologies. When extreme ideas are shared, they become more extreme. Whenever a phrase is used like 'everyone does this,' a technique of neutralization (9) has been activated. 'Everyone' does not smoke marijuana, watch pornography or download music illegally. A technique of neutralization is a mode of justification that has been enhanced and extended in the online environment. Further, these views can become more pervasive and far more extreme. This tendency can be seen in Pro (anorexia) Ana (10) and cutter (11) communities. It is also the reason why odd or extreme ideas have become tolerated and often encouraged through the 'comment culture' on blogs. Certain levels of personal abuse and disrespect, often from anonymous writers, are now accepted as part of online life. (12) Intriguingly, when the PEW Internet and American Life project conducted a survey, young women aged 12-13 and black teenagers reported a greater experience of 'unkindness' through social media than other groups. (13)

In our daily lives, it is easy to seek out environments that make us comfortable. We enjoy mixing with friends and family, people who know and understand us. Audiences, consumers and citizens seek out environments in which they are comfortable and are literate: they understand the language, signs and codes. Such behaviour is not limited to our analogue and corporeal lives. Rarely do we move towards those images and ideas that make us uncomfortable or that we do not understand. It is difficult to change personal worldviews, to even consider that the ideas offered by our family, friends, teachers, religious leaders and politicians may be wrong and not in our best interests. 'We' want to believe that there are people in our lives who care for us and are correct in their views. It is safer to talk to people who share our ideas, reinforce our identity and protect us from the excesses of cruelty, ignorance, inequality and prejudice.

Google has serviced this desire. On December 4, 2009 the corporation stated on its blog that Google would use 57 signals to offers assumptions about the type of sites that would suit the user. So from December 2009 searching was personalized. This post-Fordist strategy may seem welcome. However, the personal information 'targets' information and enables a narrow range of goods and services to be accessed. As Eli Pariser realized,

   The basic code at the heart of the new internet is pretty
   simple. The new generation of internet filters looks at
   the things you seem to like--the actual things you've
   done, or the things people like you like--and tries to
   extrapolate. They are prediction engines, constantly
   creating and refining a theory of who you are and what
   you'll do and want next. Together, these engines create a
   unique universe of information for each of us--what I've
   come to call a filter bubble--which fundamentally alters
   the way we encounter ideas and information. (14)

This strategy may enable efficient and targeted marketing. For educators, it is profoundly serious. Students and scholars are continually directed to information that is 'at their level' and unchallenging. It is safe data that cannot lead to threatening knowledge.

Such an arc of argument explains Graeme Turner's long term and courageous critique of the supposed democratization of new media. Indeed he terms it "demoticization." (15) The interplay between digitization and popular culture is powerful, evocative, fascinating and brilliant. Online culture enables thousands of people to tell their stories, express their enthusiasm and passion and build new forms of community. But formal education is different. Education teaching and learning--is not meant to reinforce the decisions we make in our lives. It is meant to raise questions, trouble us and challenge our views. We start to know what we do not know. Living in consumerist self satisfaction, uploading, editing and commenting, is not the basis of education. Leisure is different from learning.

In his follow up book to The Big Switch, titled The Shallows: how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, Carr tracked his online behaviour and the consequences of searching, clicking and commenting. He noted a reduction in concentration and time management.

   What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my
   capacity for concentration and contemplation ... The
   more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to
   stay focused on long pieces of writing. (16)

My critique of Carr is that he conflated automated decision making about web usage with the transformation in his brain. He chose to click and link his way around the online environment. This was not his brain changing. This new environment required making a choice between surfing and reading. He chose surfing.

   Sometime in 2007, a serpent of doubt slithered into my
   info-paradise. I began to notice that the Net was exerting
   a much stronger and broader influence over me than my
   old stand-alone PC ever had. It wasn't just that I was
   spending so much time staring into a computer screen. It
   wasn't just that so many of my habits and routines were
   changing as I became more accustomed to and
   dependent on the sites and services of the Net. The very
   way my brain worked seemed to be changing. (17)

He is suggesting that this is natural or inevitable. Carr--like all of us--can make distinct choices, deploy different platforms and activate different literacies. More intricate relationships can be configured between communication systems, information systems and memory systems. (18) Older models of literacy and learning are not destroyed. They are overlaid. Therefore, it is only necessary to scratch below the simple and the superficial to reveal more complex ways of learning, reading and writing.

By Tara Brabazon, Professor of Education and Head of the School of Teacher Education Charles Sturt University


(1) Chris Harmon, in Zombie Capitalism: global crisis and the relevance of Marx, (London: Bookmarks, 2009), argued that such narratives do not provide the ability to explain radical events such as the credit crunch or credit crash.

(2) A. Keen, The cult of the amateur, (New York: Doubleday, 2007)

(3) T. Koltay, introduced a range of mechanisms to manage a proliferation of content creators and creation in "New media and literacies: amateurs vs. professionals," First Monday, Vol. 16, No. 1-3, January 2011, p/fm/article/viewArticle/3206/2748, pp. 2-7. Koltay realized that, "Despite differences and similarities among information literacy, media literacy and digital literacy, all of them have to differentiate between amateur and professional contents produced in new media," p. 2.

(4) M. McLuhan, "Fordham University: First Lecture (1967)," from S. McLuhan and D. Staines (eds.), Marshall McLuhan Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, p. 145

(5) J. Koumi, Designing video and multimedia for open and flexible learning, (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 1230

(6) N. Carr, The Big Switch: rewiring the world, from Edison to Google, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008)

(7) ibid., p. 165

(8) D. Hebdige, Subculture (London: Routledge, 1989: 1979)

(9) G. Sykes and D. Matza, "Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency," American Sociological Review,

Vol. 22, No. 6, 1957, pp. 664-670

(10) "Pro-Ana,"

(11) "Self-injury webring,"

(12) Jimmy Wales and Tim O'Reilly proposed guidelines for bloggers in 2007 and confronted a remarkable backlash. Please refer to "Web gurus want blog etiquette despite backlash,", April 11, 2007, 20070411 and Ed Pilkington, "Howls of protest as web gurus attempt to banish bad behaviour from blogosphere," The Guardian, April 10, 2007, p. 17

(13) Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, Aaron Smith, Kristen Purcell, Kathryn Zickuhr, Lee Rainie, Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites, PEW Internet and American Life, Nov 9, 2011,

(14) E. Pariser, "Should we be scared of the made-to-measure internet?" The Observer, June 12, 2011, p. 20-21

(15) G. Turner, Understanding Celebrity, (London: SAGE, 2004)

(16) N. Carr, The shallows: how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, (London: Atlantic Books, 2010), p. 6-7

(17) ibid., p. 16

(18) Helen White and Christina Evans confirmed that "listening and attention are learnt behaviours," from Learning to listen to learn: using multi-sensory teaching for effective listening, (London: Lucky Duck, 2005), p. 3

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A342321491