Shelf Life: Information Overload

In the Google Age, media literacy is crucial—and in short supply

| July-August 2009

Lately, discussions of reading and literacy tend to devolve into polarized positions and alarmist rhetoric. On one side, fogey-nostalgist-book-loving types argue that the web is bad for reading, dumbing us down, destroying our attention spans, distracting us from classic texts. On the other, hip young techies excitedly point to the good things about digital reading, positing text-message novels and participatory media as new forms of storytelling with lower barriers to entry. This tired debate, which pits print against screen in the ultimate battle over how we read, is perhaps best summed up by the catchy headlines on last year’s New York Times talker “Online, R U Really Reading?” (July 17, 2008) and the Atlantic’s July-August 2008 cover story “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

All of this fretting over the death of reading might sound more genuine if it wasn’t usually articulated by and for people who’ve staked their lives and careers on traditional media models—authors, academics, journalists, publishers, and the like. More importantly, it’s often beside the point. The debate over how we read, perpetuated largely by media insiders, is starting to seem like little more than a distraction from the real problem: We have access to more information than ever, yet we do not know what to do with it. We are desperately information-illiterate.

The Internet has added a seemingly limitless supply of stuff to an information landscape already overcrowded with books, magazines, news reports, radio shows, and cable channels. As greater numbers of people avail themselves of online resources, however, few understand how it all works and what it all means. In 2009 literacy isn’t about finishing a book or slogging through 12 web pages to get to the end of an article. It is about knowing what to do with information, how to find the good stuff, how to assess sources. What matters is not that we are readers, but that we are critical readers.

Young people, a.k.a. “digital natives” or millennials, are endlessly singled out by media trend-watchers and “kids today” tongue-cluckers as being universally obsessed with social networking and text messaging. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, blows up this presumption in a strongly worded essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 19, 2008): “Talk of a ‘digital generation’ or people who are ‘born digital’ willfully ignores the vast range of skills, knowledge, and experience of many segments of society. . . . The ethnic, national, gender, and class biases of any sort of generation talk are troubling.”

Even for young people who grow up with gadgets, knowing how to upload videos or maintain a blog doesn’t translate to information literacy. “Of course [college students] use Google,” Vaidhyanathan writes, “but not very well—just like my 75-year-old father.”

Using search engines and databases fluently, and knowing how to find, filter, and assess accurate information, are skills that must be taught, by a parent, teacher, friend, or librarian. “This generation may surf the Net, but that does not mean that they think about how, why, and what they are doing,” write media studies teachers Barry Duncan and Carol Arcus for the Toronto-based magazine Education Forum (Winter 2009).

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