At what point does human kind stop consuming? Food. Land. Raw materials. Flora and fauna. Water. We have an insatiable appetite for all of them. It has driven colonization, exploitation, invention, and confrontation. No matter how much we have, enough is never enough. We are feeding the beast of growth, and it is only when faced with disaster, obsolescence, or extinction we correct our ways and try and to make amends.
Perhaps then it is no wonder that with all these heavy thoughts I have been thinking about the role of information in this mix of consumption. Human kind has been creating information in many forms for thousands of years, and because of its relative scarcity in the past (pre-20th century) it was easier to archive, read, and consume. In this century we are seeing billions of pieces of information being produced, and re-produced. Primarily we produce this information so it can be quickly consumed by others. All of us are contributing to this sweet social junk food of information, while also finding the bigger meatier chunks of information harder to digest and more complex to store and consume. I guess you get my analogy; I am going to liken my thinking with information to the theme of food.
The consumption of information mentality is something I liken to the obesity epidemics of many countries. Our public libraries, and those at schools and universities, swell with physical and digital information, sometimes shedding the burden of physical weight in favour of more digital fare. I know why we collect all this information, so we can consume it later, but it seems to underpin so much of the routine of our lives that I feel many have lost the ability to have an imagination. The other aspect to this analogy is consumption of information from starvation, and it also creates incredible dangers whereby people desperate for any kind of information or communication technology will happily consume pretty much any kind of crap. It’s as if our brains are being fed on all kinds of mindless and pointless information, to the point of slowing us down, making us lazy, complacent, and narrow-minded. But is it no wonder? Since the emergence of tools and spaces to store and archive information centuries ago, we are now trying to house within the Internet the entire memory of the human race, no matter how trivial, while at the same time expecting that because it exists there, then we must know about it, watch it, listen to it, and acknowledge it.
In many instances information is force fed into young people and called education. It is again no wonder that as time beats on, more information is deemed worthy to add to an obese curriculum, more data must be memorized and regurgitated. We have become dominated by the process that consumption of information equals learning. It’s as if students are treated as birds, little chicks learning to fly, waiting for the teacher to regurgitate information into them because they cannot eat it by themselves. Perhaps this is as innate (or inane) as it gets. Education has been serving the same ‘portioned and segmented meals’ for too long – ‘eat it because we say it’s good for you’. In many instances this is also implicit in conferences and professional learning seminars. I know these are horrible over-simplifications, but from one perspective I feel that we have created institutions and systems based solely on the consumption of more and more information without any real transformation. This is as opposed to systems and environments which develop skills and discernment with information. Good schools and good teachers know the difference; as too do good libraries.
We all know what pigging out on information feels like. We have studied and crammed for exams and essays, only to have it dissipate from our heads in the near future like sugar from our system. The information was not nourishing, but we were told to consume it so we could develop our palette. However when we absorb information that really stimulates and challenges us, it changes us in the same way we build muscle; it is memorable and empowering. Herein lies the real problem: there is so much ‘sugar-filled’ information out there that we’re lacking the skills to find and focus on what really matters, we don’t know what healthy consumption of information looks like, and we most certainly have not developed enough imagination, problem-solving, invention, and creation in our lives and in the lives of young people that grounds us in the present.
The antidote to consumption is play: physically and mentally. We have stripped many of our institutions of play as we became heavier with the burden of information to pass on. It is inevitable. But play is not what happens at ‘recess’ or ‘lunch’. Play is not mindless, in the same way not all information is mindless. Compelling information coupled with playful experimentation, helps us create meaning and improve processes. The digital age has a great deal it can prove that this is the case. The Internet is one of the mirrors in which we can look at ourselves and be happy with what we see. However with it comes obesity and starvation of information as two extremes that can corrupt our perspectives on this, requiring a deeper degree of discernment to know the difference, and how to take action: something I think will be another of the great challenges of human kind.