Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Information Literacy (For advanced Newbies)

While there has been much debate about the digital divide, that is not now a problem that concerns me. People who do not have computer access at least have practical access to real data in a real world. That is often superior to the pseudo-data based virtual world you and I can enter.

It's certainly true that the internet makes it possible to become more informed and better able to play an effective role in the world. It's not true that the internet is filled with unreliable data and is a poor source of information. The fear of teachers and librarians that the internet will pollute our information environment was merely a prejudice. For instance it's well known that since 1998, everybody who cared had much better well supported information about Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction, on the internet, than was carried by the established free press. Government and "official sources" proved to be the most unreliable.

Of course the ease of publication and the freedom individuals have to say what they choose on the internet does mean that there is a lot of poorly informed opinion expressed. Usually the poor quality of the source is obvious. Each of us is responsible for what we choose to pay attention too. "Garbage in garbage out", they say.

I'm indebted to NZ poet and author Kevin Ireland for this very clear insight. "All our knowing is a myth. We can never understand the past as it really was. Research based on science can produce facts, but we always interpret what those facts mean. We reinvent the past (or the present) to suit our own mind-set."

The problem that concerns me is our poor ability to understand data, and to incorporate good data into our understanding . I call this developing information literacy. Let me explain.

What is Information Literacy?

"Information literacy" is a requirement of all people who seek to live modern information rich lives. Information richness demands a set of essential skills from us all. These skills may be:

a) Each person having his or her own data. Your own life is your primary experience. Each of us should have notes, records and measurements based on that experience. Journals, diaries, bench notes, photographs, sketches, that can act as aids to our memories. You trust your own data. Having your own data is your filter against collecting a lot of rubbish from published sources. Your own data helps you to use suitable key words when you do internet searches.

b) Collected secondary data. We all need to collect resources: from the Internet, radio, books, television or in conversations and letters. The most interesting parts of that need to be filed or stored in some logical way. Access to these records is important. Most of the material in my journal is a collection of this sort of material. Sadly my journal is not indexed.

c) Understanding your belief filters. We all use filters to preselect what takes our interest and what we find is acceptable evidence or unacceptable evidence. Our filters make it possible to cope with the sea of data that flows around us. We choose to pay attention to only a tiny part of that. Sometimes we need to pay attention to things we would rather not know about.

d) Making space in our lives for uncertainty. It's very comforting to live in a world of certain knowledge. Positive thinking and some religious beliefs create this strong sense of certainty. It's a trap of choice. Once you choose to "know", then what you "know" forbids knowing something else. (You can't hold both a positive and negative charge at the same time.) We all need space in our lives for not knowing. Create a workspace in your mind for unresolved problems, leave room for doubt. Try to avoid rushing to close an argument too soon by filling in the gaps in our knowledge with inventions from our own imagination. The growing edges of our lives are the places where we maintain our doubt.

e) Making an effort occasionally to find the pattern. There are both complex ways to understand data and ways to simplify that understanding. English academic Gregory Bateson spoke about "finding the pattern that connects." Our data is disconnected, and understanding what the data offers becomes clear when we can see a pattern. The pattern is the key to turn raw data back into information. The data, the facts alone have no meaning. We create meaning when we decide what the data says. Reading material doesn't mean you "know it". Choosing what to "know" and integrating it with what you knew before is a task that takes time and effort.

f) To do something with the new ideas you are generating. We build our own minds. Mind building is an active process. On the internet I've done a lot of reading research to answer people who have made ignorant and unjustified statements. You never win the argument with people like this. Their position is entrenched and they are not motivated to do their own research. But they do provided me with motivation. So I learn new things. In writing a reply I structure what I've learnt and integrate it with my previous learning. The fact that only 14 people read the essay, that my challenger was unimpressed, and that nobody else was likely to take any real interest is of no matter.

When you are learning new things, do something with the knowledge. Write in your journal, put something in your blog, to talk to a friend about it, try to make a plan, develop a speech, or communicate what you are thinking to a group, maybe by email. Doing something practical is a good test. If your communication fails or the test breaks, go back to the beginning. Quite a bit needs to be known about any subject in order for anyone to use new understanding effectively. Educational specialists often speak about learning as though immediately after the lesson you can have full understanding. Often when you learn things, full understanding of what you know comes weeks, months, even years later.

g) This may lead to publication in some form. (In fact "f" is also a form of publication) Here the publication is more formal, more planned. An essay, a web page, a programme of action, maybe even a book. Or perhaps your own game, or music composition or artwork or designs or …… whatever creative activity you can imagine. Some skills in speaking and writing or in coding may increase your ability to be effective.

h) Appreciate that all our understanding is mythological. We cannot know the truth. We can only seek understanding. Our memories keep re-inventing the truth in a way that suits our own current mind-set and purpose. We build the truth we need for the moment. It helps us get by. I like the quote from American film-maker Waldo Salt. "To seek the truth you must first have lost it." That simple idea if the crux of Information Literacy. The journey begins when you understand that what you thought you knew is not longer valid, and that all truth is elusive.

The Journey

It matters not a scrap where you begin. Eventually everything is connected to everything else. There is no golden path. Begin with computers, family history, football, or aerospace engineering, it’s all one ball of wax, you can only start where you are. What interests you now? You will go on from there to a dozen other things once you develop the skills required. In fact the whole spectrum of lifelong learning depends exactly on these skills which I'm calling "information literacy"

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