You can’t run away from theories. Sooner or later, any odd pedestrian activity you do free of anxiety and without a moment’s contemplation may find itself infused in a soggy Adorno-esque gravity. Some of us are fortunate and only encounter it once, probably late in life. But alas, others can’t seem to keep theories off of them. They are theory magnets. One day, without warning, a theory, or several, will come at you from a dark corner and latch on and thread you from head to toe in dialectic sinews.
I’ve always felt myself impervious to theories. I never quite had the taste for them. I don’t even pretend to understand more than a pin-sized minority of citations found in this very publication. Nor am I entirely certain as to how many theory attacks I’ve actually sustained – because I’ve got a thing for that. I’ve cultivated an iron wall of detachment that is able to regard anything that discomforts, distresses, or bores me terribly as being just not there.
But then the inevitable happened: my willful ignorance became… a matter of theory.
So this tweet from Stanford Education professor Sam Wineburg told me, anyway, promoting a paper he co-authored with three other people on the “core competence” of “critical ignoring” for “digital citizens.” “Low-quality and misleading information online can hijack people’s attention,” begins the abstract,
Resisting certain types of information and actors online requires people to adopt new mental habits that help them avoid being tempted by attention-grabbing and potentially harmful content. We argue that digital information literacy must include the competence of critical ignoring—choosing what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities.
It goes on to say that it will present three types of critical ignoring:
[S]elf-nudging, in which one ignores temptations by removing them from one’s digital environments; lateral reading, in which one vets information by leaving the source and verifying its credibility elsewhere online; and the do-not-feed-the-trolls heuristic, which advises one to not reward malicious actors with attention.
Wineburg provided a kind of tl;dr version for The Conversation, if you are so inclined.
Part of me wants to say that I ignored this paper, but in addition to being too cute by half, it is also not strictly true. It is better to say that I came to the paper with its framework pre-internalized. Because for me, ignoring things online, and in life generally, is not merely a theory, but a craft perfected by years of dedicated refinement.
How you ignore the internet must extend from why you go to the internet in the first place. In fact, going online often indicates that you have mastered the craft of ignorance elsewhere. You are free to leap from distraction to distraction while all that surrounds you, good or bad, sinks into the darkest, rat-infested corners of your mind sanitarium.That may be a different subject altogether. If, however, the internet serves as a kind of tool, knowing what it cannot fix or what it will render more broken, and hence what can be safely avoided, is a vital skill.
I’m old enough to know a time when the simple desire of obtaining information required a multistep process. First was having the quick thought, which snowballed into a nagging curiosity, which then required searching for whatever resources of fulfillment were on hand. It took forever to convince my mom to get me a goddamn World Book set; so failing that, to the library I went to bring the reference desk lady one day closer to total nervous breakdown. And even then I was limited by the paltry materials of a New Jersey municipality. I was a routinely disappointed child.
So when the internet came along and promised to lay all the secrets of the world at my grubby fingertips, an entire intellectual obstacle course was abbreviated forthwith. “Screw the encyclopedias,” I anachronistically exalted! “Everything I could ever hope to know about is on [squints] Rotten dot com.”
Of course those librarians that I hadn’t driven to a Thorazine-addled zombification were skeptical at this change, and not merely for territorial reasons. For I am also old enough to know a time when “misleading information” was a primary concern about the infant internet. I took this seriously. Somehow the suspicion that the internet was “too much of a good thing,” even at the tar-paced speed it was then running, had developed in me early on. There was a feeling that someone in a room filled with huge blinking rectangles had made a massive error; or that someone in a centipede-infested underground lair was yanking society’s chain. It was wise to tread carefully, to show discretion, to know what was edifying and what was bound to turn your brain into disco fries.
Escaping the orgy of inquiry
This need for discretion was in part driven by a personal, Machiavellian animus. There was only so much of the curriculum special education students like me were assumed to be able to handle. When you chafe at restrictions imposed from on high, the internet’s anarchic egalitarian approach to information proves highly seductive. And as it seduced pretty much everyone into the same orgy of inquiry, it occurred to me that I could put myself at great advantage by curating my own intake. I made an effort – a Herculean one for a fourteen-year-old, to be sure – to chasten my impulses and sharpen my instincts. The sheer act of “surfing the web” was not sufficient. I needed a reason: a sturdy basis upon which to forge my search criteria. I needed actual interests and imperatives.
Imposing discretion upon your online diet can feel like you’re giving yourself the despotic power over who lives and who dies. But that power is a necessity because your actual live brain is more than some political dominion. What is corrupting corrupts you. In my case I found nothing valuable in fandoms and I was not interested in building communal bonds over in BBS-land. People today talk about how the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan message board brought disparate fans together to gush over their favorite show in an otherwise hostile world, and to sometimes chat with its creator, though maybe that’s not such a good thing these days. Great for them! Early on I decided that online communities would hamper my quest for enlightenment. So I simply ignored them. Was this unwise? Perhaps companionship would have been beneficial in my early research on punk. The lone-wolf/autodidact approach has its own hazards. To affect it means also having to be something of an adult.
It was easy to be a Machiavellian adult when the surrounding society was still relatively healthy. As the internet made a more exacting claim on our headspace, the orgy became the normal scope of consumption. There was no desire for restraint or need for safe words when it came to scrolling. Whatever came in front of your face was, by virtue of it being there, the most important thing in your life. Possibly without realizing it, online users were surrendering their intellectual agency to the will of the web. In the swell of such chaos, dreams of personal advancement (which weren’t working out anyway) gave way to a civil obligation, even if that, too, was a somewhat contrarian device.
Ignorance has itself not actually been ignored by the internet. It is actually built into nearly all platforms where one person can connect with scores of others with abundant options for muting and blocking. But clearly that is not enough.
From theory fodder to vampire slayer
“Critical ignoring” is at least correct in that committed personal ignorance must be instilled in each online user as riding a bike and making babies are instilled in each child and adolescent. Ignoring one annoying person or thing on Twitter or Instagram’s dreaded Explore cesspool or wherever will not prevent you from falling victim to someone or something just as bad. Indeed, sources of cheap thrills and validations are often the very things that need to be blocked. There’s no good theoretical axiom here; but there is a fine allegory.
Think about your eyeballs. Think about how much time your eyeballs are directed at any of the several screens in your personal domain. Now think about what your eyeballs are staring at. You think you’ve driven away every possible nuisance the internet offers – intrusive ads, sexy temptations, your mom’s chain emails, Spanish baroque poetry – so you feel safe. And yet you find yourself giving precious eyeball energy to this new thing that says or does everything you think you want. At first you feel free and easy in its confidence, but then it takes up more and more of that energy, until you find yourself, quite without knowing it, well and truly eyeless.
Getting rid of distractions and provocations online is one thing. Fighting off eyeball vampires is a higher skill set; one that, once mastered, should be included on resumes and sought after by the most reasonable and eminent institutions of civilization, like the NSA and Chuck E. Cheese. It’s bad enough that we go out every day while theories lie in wait to systematize us into oblivion. But at least theories want all of you, not just your precious eyeballs, which I’ve rationalized as being somehow better.