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Strong opinions, weakly held

Short on attention, shorter on information

Lots of people seem to be talking about the attention crisis lately. There’s so much out there to pay attention to that nobody has enough time to pay attention to everything they’re interested in. The attention I pay to feeds I subscribe to waxes and wanes regularly. Sometimes I page through them hardly reading anything, other times I page through them sort of paying attention. I’ve never been one to carefully read much of anything, especially on the first pass.

Anyway, I can cope with the fact that there’s too much stuff out there to give my attention to everything that I might want to. I’d love to read the New Yorker and Economist and New York Review of Books and the local paper, and the list of books I’d like to read but haven’t even picked up is staggering. Then there’s the canon of great movies that I’d like to see someday, and all of the musicians I’ll never listen to, and the list goes on and on. Then there’s the stuff I’m drawn to like a moth to a flame that I regard as a total waste of time. I’m a sucker for repeats of certain TV shows and computer games and certain gossipy web sites and every minute I spend on those things is a minute I don’t do something I probably should be doing.

What really gets to me, though, is how hard it is to become well-informed on a subject and how easy it is to offer your opinion as though you’re well-informed on a subject. As bad as being spread to thin is, what’s worse is coming to accept the level of ignorance at which we all inevitably operate. Pick any important topic, think about it, and you realize that there is no such thing as being fully informed. Take the Wal-Mart memo on health insurance costs that was in the news last week. I’ve read several articles on it, all of which make some sense to me. And that’s one memo from one company. When you expand that to health insurance or to the even larger topic of health care, you realize that humility is indicated.

And yet what the world is really full of is people on TV shows, or weblogs, or in newspapers giving what sound like authoritative opinions on topics that they don’t really understand. How much of our attention do we spend on that sort of thing? Thinking about this information deficit has put me off writing about many topics. I don’t want to be one more voice offering “solutions” to problems that I don’t fully comprehend. I’d rather stick to writing about things I do know a lot about (developing Web applications) and pointing to good writing that inform rather than argue, and I try to spend my scarce attention on those things rather than on punditry.

5 Comments

  1. … I try to spend my scarce attention on those things rather than on punditry.

    are those the two alternatives? isn’t there at least a third way, which is reaction and venting? sometimes (usually?) I blog something not because of my expertise but because of the shock (or excitement or amusement) I feel in hearing about it, and because I think other people need to know about it too, to be informed in their future actions and decisions. that seems as valuable to me as being the definitive resource on any particular thing, or in restricting myself to the area(s) of my “real world” expertise…

  2. Blogs were supposed to solve this problem: a person with a passion to become fully informed on a particular subject would have his own public outlet.

    I think this has happened to a large degree. Therefore, if you subscribe to a lot of feeds–presumably feeds for such informed niche bloggers–you can scan your feeds, as you mention, and only read one item from a blogger whom you trust on that subject, instead of becoming fully informed yourself.

    But as you mention, the challenge is to figure out who is indeed fully informed and who just seems to be so.

  3. you nicely stated what the essential problem for the world public is these days. the internets were supposed to be a great uniter and equalizer, but in practice, they’ve done the exact opposite. there’s too much stuff, and i personally think in a world with too many choices, the vast majority will fall back on the easiest route which is too simply filter for only those choices that conform to their own preconceptions…..hence, all the echo-chambers that persist in denying reality to so many.

    your tack, however, of pointing to interesting and well-written tracts i am highly appreciative of….and it’s probably what’s had me coming back for years after i first found this site from a random web search…..

    thanks, btw.

  4. I’m with acm – I think you are too narrowly constricting your options here. My thoughts on this are not clear at the moment, but a couple of reactions:

    1) To suggest that only “experts” discuss trenchant topics of the day is, to my mind, elitist and anti-democratic. (And I have elitist tendencies of my own, so I don’t always think that’s a bad thing, but mine are not in this direction.) The chatter and buzz and cacophony of millions of citizens talking about a million different things may be uncomfortable, but it’s as pure an instantation of the First Amendment as we’ve gotten to so far.

    2) I agree with you that when people speak authoritatively about things on which they are not well-informed that their listeners are not well-served. However, I think this happens in at least two ways: a) people who are deliberately pushing a point of view and care not whether their views are well-founded and b) people who just haven’t had the time to get another master’s degree on subject X but, as educated, thoughtful citizens have come to a preliminary conclusion and wish to stand on their own personal soapbox and speak it. Sometimes those doing ‘b’ may not always carefully qualify their statements, but personally I love it when people speak up about something they’ve come to care about. I would argue there’s still too much apathy and while I share a severe information overload burden, I still want there to be more voices, not fewer.

    3) I work with national and world-class experts on various issues every day. Really. Pick a topic. There are probably only a couple of handfuls of people in the world who are deeply informed on that topic. Really. Are they the only ones who should be allowed to opine about it? Really?

    4) A well-informed, critical-thinking, information-skilled citizenry is a holy grail, of course. I believe it would solve a multitude of problems. We don’t have it, though. What we have is messy, unpleasant, and poorly-structured. People making policy aren’t as informed as they should be (and have been known shock to even ignore data and facts) and people reacting to policy and current events aren’t as informed as they should be. Nevertheless, the discourse continues. Policy decisions are made. Staying apart from that is not productive. Sure, throwing noise into the system is bad (see ‘a’ above), but speaking in good faith to the best of one’s ability as a citizen? That’s a productive endeavor, I think.

    5) This conversation is particularly pointed for me because by virtue of some ethics considerations I can’t in fact speak publicly much about the things I’m nominally an expert in. I sometimes will speak obliquely, but there are whole topics I’m forced to basically avoid. So, like acm, I use my webspace for reacting and venting spleen. I try to be somewhat responsible, in part because I have a few readers for whom I’m a major source of information, but the lack of a Ph.D. in economics or political science is not going to keep me from commenting on legislation or proposed policies or government behaviors that will affect the lives of my nearest and dearest.

    In fact, when I really get riled up, (usually after a martini) I have even been known to declare quite forcefully that it is our duty as citizens to at least speak up and talk back.

  5. I encourage people to discuss anything they want to. I just want people to bring some humility to the table with them. I have opinions on foreign policy. terrorism, war, the legal system, movies, music, and just about everything else. At any given moment, I’m apt to present them to just about anyone. I just hope that I don’t pass myself off as though I’m some sort of authority on those topics.

    And I read plenty of stuff beyond expert opinions, mainly because I find it entertaining. My frustration is with the pundits, not with the everyday blogger who’s giving it their best. That would be more than a bit hypocritical.

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