My title this week is taken from David Weinberg’s 2014 reflections on internet culture–TOO BIG TO KNOW: RETHINKING KNOWLEDGE NOW THAT THE FACTS AREN’T THE FACTS, EXPERTS ARE EVERYWHERE, AND THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE ROOM IS THE ROOM. In addition to being a provocative look at the proliferation of online knowledge (and trivia), this book also has the distinction of having what is perhaps the longest title of any other book published in 2014.
Weinberg’s book is a good jumping-off place for a look at how the information-gathering process involved in getting this column ready has changed during the past twenty-eight years. When my first column appeared in May 1989, I set out to review movies that had recently appeared on VHS tape. My research consisted of visiting my local video store and checking out a couple of tapes. Needless to say, IMDb didn’t exist “back in the day,” and if I wanted to gather additional information about my movies, I had to consult my stack of “Entertainment Weekly” magazines, hoping there would be something there I could use (there rarely was). So, here I was with my two VHS tapes, left with only my brain to fill in the gaps. Today, of course, things have drastically changed and the information I confront each week is truly “too big to know.”
Today, when I contemplate what I’m going to write about, I don’t have to go to the local video store or the library. Instead, I browse apps like Flipboard (or “Filmstruck,” the new app that lets me find rare movies like “Fiend Without A Face” that I’m watching as I write this) in search of new stuff to reflect upon. The one thing that hasn’t changed, however, is my goal of using what I find as a springboard for thinking about the larger implications of what I find. Nevertheless the “too big to know” factor is growing incrementally, making my job both much easier and overwhelming.
Take Flipboard, my favorite app, for example. This neat curated app lets me create an extensive personalized list of topics that perhaps only I will find interesting. As I write this, I am looking over my curated topics that include movies, science, pop culture, jazz, ridiculous, piano, technological change, conspiracies, culture, mindfulness (yes, this one is pretty lame), literature, big data, history, big ideas, ancient history, pop music, creative writing, learning, skepticism, Miles Davis, jazz guitar, FOMO (fear of missing out), teaching, zen, personal leadership, creativity, the future, art history, Top 10, stuff and nonsense (a personal favorite), totally 80s, satire, anthropology, law, humor, books, cool stuff, industrial design, reading, 18th century, monsters, pedagogy, cognition, 17th century, Alfred Hitchcock, educational technology, 16th century, John Coltrane, problem-solving, architecture, and Jackson Pollock. And this just scratches the surface and doesn’t include the standard news chapters like “The Daily Edition” that help me finish my morning cereal each day. Where to begin? Where to end? There’s definitely enough information and inspiration here for several more years of “Kelly’s Place” columns. Sure beats the heck out of visiting the local video store, although I do miss that place and its rows and rows of little rectangular boxes, not to mention the quirky and always-intriguing people who worked there.
Just for fun, and perhaps to provide some fodder for a future column, let’s take a look at a few things that can be found among the several thousand things I’ve curated. Opening up my FOMO chapter we find gems like “6 Ways To Break Your iPhone Addiction,” “This Is What Happens To Your Brain And Body When You Check Your Smartphone Before Bed,” and “21-Year-Old Woman Loses Her Eyesight After Staring At Her Smartphone For Days.” Flipping open my 16th Century folder I can get lost in articles like “Income And Working Time Of A Fencing Master In Bologna In The 15th and Early 16th Century,” “The Grisly Werewolf Panic That Swept Europe A Century Before The Salem Witch Trials,” and “Can You Spot All The Sea Monsters In This 16th-Century Map?” If I ever need encouragement to finish my weekly column, I can open Creative Writing and find “How To Stop Worrying And Love The Process of Writing,” “A Digital Tool For Writers Seeks To Create The Perfect, Error-Free Text,” and “5 Writing Lessons From Groundhog Day.” As a musician, I often consult the Music section, and just now I can read why Quincy Jones thinks “The Beatles Were The Worst Musicians In The World,” “10 Classic Live Albums Every Music Fan Should Own On Vinyl” (I am not a vinyl fan, sorry), “The Spice Girls Were A Death Knell For Feminism–Why Would We Want Them Back?” and “Album Review: Justin Timberlake Gets Creative, Twangy, And Downright Stupid On Man Of The Woods.” In my Antarctica folder, I am curious about “Work Among The Penguins? France Is Looking For Candidates,” The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica,” and “Patriot Fan To Watch Game From South Pole.”
In addition to Flipboard, I also frequently consult TED, Engadget, Edutopia, News360, and a new app called SmartNews. And, yes, I can’t go a day without taking a peek at IMDb (Internet Movie Database). We are already well past Too Big To Know and the sheer magnitude of what can be learned is mind-boggling. Of course, my focus on pop culture will always guarantee that I never run out of topics.
When faced with this glut of information we need more than ever to develop our critical thinking skills so we can do more than just stare at all this stuff. We can of course only deal with one item at a time, and must learn we can never gain a comprehensive knowledge of everything. The best we can hope for is to be highly selective. Better to reflect on and think deeply about two or three articles than to superficially peruse hundreds of others. This is, after all, our only option in a world that is Too Big To Know.
See you next week. In the meantime, continue adding to your Flipboard library.