Too much information running through my brain
Too much information driving me insane

Gordon Sumner

I’ve increasingly seen a bizarre trend over the past two decades: information access gets easier and easier; the populace’s ignorance grows greater and greater.  Allow me to give you some examples.

English Students

When I started in China there was, for all practical purposes, no Internet for most people.  Smartphones existed (barely) but were far too expensive for most people and, in the part of China I was in, rarer than hen’s teeth.  Even where they existed they didn’t do much good; wireless Internet was too expensive and too slow to be useful, even in the rare cases it was available at all.

My students almost all came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds anyway.  They had barely enough money to live; they certainly didn’t have enough money to buy frivolities.  Some of them could afford fifth-generation copies of audio tapes of badly-received BBC World Service or Voice of America broadcasts for practice.  Maybe.

On top of all this, class sizes were huge.  My smallest class in that school was 43 students.  (My largest was over 150.  That’s 150 students being taught oral English skills…)  There was, in effect, virtually no time available with the one person who could really help them through their difficulties.

Those students had a very narrow data pipe from which to extract information.  Most of them learned to speak English well enough, by the end of their two or three year program, to get a job involving it.  Sure many of them had comical accents or awkward holes in their vocabulary and grammar, but they were functional enough that they could stand on their own feet and continue learning.  I’m still in touch with several students from those days here fifteen years later.  They have mostly flourished quite admirably.  Some of them have, indeed, impressed me with their drive and their success.

My students today have it really well by comparison.  Even the poorest of my students has a smartphone with a data plan.  Literally at their fingertips, only a pocket away, is an entire world of information: online dictionaries, encyclopedias, search engines, Q&A forums, and a further wealth of options I can’t even picture (out of touch as I am).  Further, class sizes have shrunk dramatically in the past fifteen years.  My largest classes now are smaller than my smallest class was back then.  I routinely have “advanced” classes with student counts in single digits!

And yet, they’re dullards.

In the past two years I can literally count on one hand (and have change left over for a bizarre gardening accident to shear off a couple of fingers!) the students who legitimately passed their program able to speak English.

THESE ARE ENGLISH MAJORS!  These are English majors who have more opportunities and more resources for learning English than anybody in history before them in China.  (The last Emperor of China with his private tutor had fewer opportunities and resources to learn English than the poorest of my students today!)  Yet these very same English majors are not learning.  They’re incapable of it.  Their ability to learn has been somehow crippled.

Lest you think this is just me, incidentally, I should point out that China is facing somewhat of a crisis in education: teachers are just quitting mid-career.  Giving up.  All over the country, in all universities, colleges, middle schools, etc. teachers are just walking away from their jobs.  The most common reason given?  They don’t enjoy teaching any longer.  The students are awful.  I hear this from Chinese teachers and from fellow foreign teachers, even those fortunate enough to teach at top-tier universities like Beijing University or that calibre.

Social Media

Seemingly every day now I get a parade of utter bullshit crossing my screen on Facebook or Twitter or other such cesspools of human “interaction”.  For example in the past month alone I’ve had to correct the same bullshit story about how ancient peoples couldn’t perceive the colour blue a few times.  An article of dubious scholarship is the source of this.  It spread from there to the mass media (an institution that has lost what little focus it ever had on “checking facts” and “verifying stories” long ago).  From the mass media it spread, like a wave of untreated mental sewage, across the pipelines of the Internet to splash across my Facebook feed.

When I first encountered this story, it seemed *very* distantly plausible.  Too, I saw it thrown around so often that I was wondering if maybe I’d missed something key.  It was interesting.  So I fired up Duckduckgo and went to town on it.  It took me less than five minutes to pretty much definitively prove that the story was pure, unadulterated, bullshit.  Here are a few little countering facts:

  • It’s claimed that the ancient Greeks couldn’t see blue which is why the sea is described as “wine dark” in Homer’s works.  Unfortunately for this theory those “white” statues that are stereotypically “ancient Greek”?  They were nothing of the sort.  They were garishly painted.  One of the pigments used to paint them was azurite.  Would you care to guess what colour azurite is?  (Hint: the sky might contain a clue…)
  • It’s claimed the ancient Chinese couldn’t see blue.  As evidence there is the (actually correct) fact that classical Chinese didn’t have a word for “blue”.  Instead they had 青 (qīng), which covered green and blue.  To understand just how fatuous this is, consider how different sky blue is from azure is from royal blue is from … you get the idea.  Does this mean we can’t tell the difference between the sky and a navy blue suit?  Same thing applies.  青 is a category of colour with many shades.  The fact that in English there are two categories for this is no more “proof” that the Chinese couldn’t tell the difference than is the fact that Chinese has two words for sister (姐姐 and 妹妹) where English has only one.  (Does that imply that English speakers can’t tell their older sisters from their younger?)
    If that’s not sufficient evidence of stupidity, looking at some ancient temples with their painted beams should be another clue.  The beams were painted garishly like the Greek statues.  Including intertwined scrollwork of both blue and green; intertwined, but very distinct.  It’s hard to keep things you can’t tell apart separate, especially when intertwined in complex patterns…
  • Similar claims are advanced for Egyptians despite the fact that the Egyptians practically worshipped lapis lazuli and are documented as having a word for “blue” by 3000BCE at the latest.

When I say it took me five minutes to definitively disprove this ridiculous theory, I meant it.  I found out about the Greek statues in about three minutes, and I already knew about the Chinese temples so I just had to find some accounts of newly-uncovered temples to show that they hadn’t been painted over in modern times.  That was about two minutes’ work.

The problem is that it’s five minutes per thing that crosses my screen, and my screen is a veritable fountain of bullshit these days, a fountain that daily seems intent on spewing its stupidity to new heights.  I fully expect to see misinformation hit escape velocity and go zooming past the ISS someday soon.  I can’t keep up with it any longer.

So why are people who were brought up awash in a sea of available information so prone to not using it?

A Crackpot Theory

Remember when I said that I couldn’t keep up with the effluent spewing across my screen on a daily basis any longer?  That was the clue for me as to what could be behind the ignorance effect.  The very omnipresence of the data, combined with the sheer volume of it, blends into something very toxic.  This is for two reasons:

The laziness factor

When I was growing up without all these tools to find information I was driven (by parents, by teachers, ultimately by myself) to learn how to find information.  Because finding information was hard I had to develop the skills to keep track of sources of it.  I developed good habits in researching and remembering at the very least where to find things I’d encountered.  Good study and research habits are like strong muscles: they require constant exercise  to grow and to be maintained.  If you never use them at all, they atrophy and, ultimately, practically vanish.  People brought up in the “Age of Information” have, ironically, never developed the skills necessary to cope with the information at their fingertips.  They’ve never been taught how to find it or check up on it because they’ve never had to.  They trust that the information will always be there, so they never actually bother to look for it.  Further they trust that someone else has already vetted the information for truthfulness (since so many people have access to it) so there’s no need for them to bother.

I think this is what has happened to my students, for example.  They don’t bother studying, practising, or even looking things up because they “know” that their phone can do it for them.  I’ve had students hand in mechanically-translated (quite comically from plagiarized Chinese sources!) gibberish as their work.  They were utterly gobsmacked when I looked at it for less than five seconds and threw it back at them: “I said write in your own words, not in Baidu Translate’s words.”  They honestly didn’t understand how I could tell that it was machine translated!  They had such faith in their resources they didn’t even bother to check if what was coming from them was coherent, not to mention correct.

This combines in very bad ways with…

The flood factor

The amount of data an average person has pouring into their brain on an average day is actually quite incredible to consider.  If you’re not careful to filter it out it’s easy to become completely overwhelmed by it.  If you’ve never been taught the discipline of acquiring and sifting through information sources you will drown in it.

I think this explains the ever-spreading piles of bullshit on the Internet.  There’s simply too much stuff crossing our screens every waking moment of the day for us to check it all.  This is particularly true for people whose “research muscles” are atrophied from disuse and whose information base is the unsteady, almost wobbly, pile of untruths and half-truths that is the foundation of the Internet.  Most people lack both the tools and the will to sniff out bullshit and would rather spend their time spreading around something that seems entertaining (and, totally by coincidence, that shows how we’re so much better than those guys over there/back then/whatever!).  There’s no malice in the people spreading it (no matter how aggravating that spread may get).  There’s just ignorance.

Where do we go from here?


Sorry, Fish, but I have no fucking idea.  For all I know I may be contributing to the situation with this very screed.  This problem is bigger than I can even fully conceive, I suspect, not to mention take a crack at solving (the flood factor).  I’ll leave this for smarter people than I to fix (the laziness factor).

The more I see, the more I hear
The more I find fewer answers
I close my mind, I shout it out
But you know it’s getting harder