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Just because all philosophers are on Twitter…

Just because everyone is on Twitter doesn’t mean they’ve all got interesting things to say. I vaguely recall reading that late 19th-century curmudgeons expressed similar scepticism about the then much-hyped technology of the telephone. Their thought was that even if there came a time when everyone had a telephone on their desk, the amount of insight and knowledge to be shared would not be able to keep pace. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum, so it is perhaps not surprising that with insight unable to keep up with the expanding space for communication, other, less serious, topics filled the gaps. Thus.

It is not all bad news of course. The expansion and ready availability of communication technologies has meant that it is far easier for serious ideas to be tested and refined, far easier to develop diverse communities of scholarship, and far easier for new discoveries, theories and data to permeate beyond ivory towers. A modern counterpoint is that it is also far easier to spread misleading and self-serving theories, far easier to spread messages of hate and violence, and far easier for discourse to polarise as, with so many options available, people gravitate towards those sources which reinforce and intensify existing prejudices.

This explosion of available information and opinions also presents a challenge to traditional notions of education and citizenry. There may have been a time when the purpose of education was primarily to create an informed citizenry – to give them the relevant information – but that time is certainly not now. Now, information is more freely available and a far more important skill is the ability to independently discern reliable from unreliable sources, fact from fiction, genuine authority from charlatanism, feline ecology from lolcats. Where once scholarship meant perseverance and a dedication to tracking down otherwise inaccessible information, an increasingly vital skill in modern scholarship is a well-tuned bullshit detector.

A useful distinction to bear in mind here is between message and medium. (Philosophers love distinctions!) Each has its own hype cycle, and they are not always in sync. At the top of each cycle is the peak of inflated expectations. It is at this point in the cycle of new media technologies that we hear grand transformational claims, such as the view that virtual reality will end inequality, that the internet will kill traditional publishers and bookshops, that social networking will scupper academic peer-review, or that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) will turn University campuses into ghost towns. After a tough period of disillusionment when initial enthusiasts and investors come to terms with the failure of their over-inflated expectations, the cycle reaches a plateau of productivity where the new medium is embraced by an increasingly significant portion of the population who see genuine usefulness beyond the hype.

Though the cycle repeats with each new medium – from telephones to Twitter – it is not futile. For what is gained through each iteration is a deeper understanding of the phenomenon which the technology was due to replace. So, for example, we learn something about the true (and changing) value of publishers, bookshops, peer-review and universities by understanding that they cannot be wholly replaced by new technologies. A strong theme running through these particular values is the notion of a discerning eye. With so many pieces of information, opinions and lolcats out there, we would simply be lost if we did not have some way of filtering reliable from unreliable research, scientific from wishful thinking, well-reasoned interpretations from self-serving propaganda.

This is not to say, of course, that the best way to navigate modern media seas is by blind deference to authority. All authorities are fallible (with the notable exception of OUP, of course). Far more important is the ability to critically evaluate pedigree for oneself. This is where universities can come in. My own engagement with MOOCs (through the Open University’s FutureLearn platform) has taught me that while large online courses are fantastic at bringing together a diverse range of students, they work best when those students are encouraged to engage critically with the ideas and experience they and others bring to the community. Inculcating and refining these skills is something that smaller scale teaching and face-to-face education are, im my experience, uniquely placed to do. So while everyone being on Twitter might not mean that everyone has interesting things to say, the resulting flood of information and opinion does mean that educators still have interesting things to do.

Featured image: Mobile Phone by geralt. Public domain via Pixabay.

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