The web and the "tyranny of choice"

The "tyranny of choice" is an appropriate way to describe our society's relationship with information and the internet. I plan to eventually write about why the problem of Total Noise is among the most significant intellectual challenges faced by educators, students, parents, ... (this list would never end) in today's world, but for now I'll refer to an essay called Deciderization 2007 by David Foster Wallace, still the best thing written about the impact of Total Noise on everyday life.[1]

Wallace's point in the essay (seriously, go read it) is that the era of Total Noise has ushered in a "new normal" in which we are forced, by necessity, to outsource our intellectual labour. We increasingly depend on the integrity of others to help us understand the world.[2]

If you know me, you'll know that I tend to obsess over this topic, perhaps projecting the circumstances of my own life onto everyone who spends a lot of time online. Trying to make sense of complexity easily leads to feeling overwhelmed, which is why our media and "information sources" frequently make hay out of cheap, quick "analysis," hot takes, and clickbait. We recede from complexity and uncertainty because we seek reassurance that there are easy answers, that our values, beliefs, and instincts are the right ones, and that "issues" can be packaged neatly for easy consumption.

All of this preamble creates some context for today's questions: what websites do I trust? What websites should I trust? And why am I drawn to certain websites (or sources of information) over others? Where do I allocate my limited time to consume information, and why? Here, Wallace addresses these questions with considerable insight. When introducing the essays he, as editor, has chosen for Best American Essays 2007, he writes:

All are smart and well written, but what renders them most valuable to me is a special kind of integrity in their handling of fact. An absence of dogmatic cant. Not that service essayists don’t have opinions or make arguments. But you never sense, from this year’s Best, that facts are being specially cherry-picked or arranged in order to advance a pre-set agenda. They are utterly different from the party-line pundits and propagandists who now are in such vogue, for whom writing is not thinking or service but more like the silky courtier’s manipulation of an enfeebled king.

The whole thing is (once again) way too complicated to do justice to in a guest intro, but one last, unabashed bias/preference in BAE ’07 is for pieces that undercut reflexive dogma, that essay to do their own Decidering in good faith and full measure, that eschew the deletion of all parts of reality that do not fit the narrow aperture of, say for instance, those cretinous fundamentalists who insist that creationism should be taught alongside science in public schools, or those sneering materialists who insist that all serious Christians are as cretinous as the fundamentalists.

As always, Wallace is able to explain something "way too complicated to do justice to" in a few paragraphs, and it's reassuring that I can always quote from Deciderization when I'm trying to make sense of this all-encompassing problem, one whose existential implications, I would argue, complicate current values and practices upheld by education. Among these core principles is the belief that intelligence and knowledge can be adequately assessed, when in fact it's the demonstrations of intelligence and knowledge being assessed, which may (or may not) rely on linguistic skills that deftly circumvent the problems of excess information and complexity.

Learning to navigate and read the web for trustworthy information is a substantial undertaking, and we have to assume a lot about individual learners when we try to explain its importance. "Information literacy" is informed by our assumptions around a learner's culture, her background, and her foundational skills. But I can only speak for myself, and for me, evaluating information is less about systematic filtering and more about simple questions concerning each writer's purpose: Is s/he using writing to think through complexity? Or is there an unspoken ideology that underlies the writer's conceptual process? And can I explain why that ideology is problematic?

I'd like to use this space to highlight independent content creators who, in my estimation, stand out among the Total Noise as invaluable contributors to the conversation.

Brain Pickings

Among my favourite and most visited websites has to be Brain Pickings, a blog that doubles as a repository for thoughts about life by interesting thinkers who have left an impression on the writer behind the scenes. She is Maria Popova, and I love how she describes her purpose:

Brain Pickings is my one-woman labor of love — a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why. Mostly, it’s a record of my own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — and an inquiry into how to live and what it means to lead a good life.

Whenever I browse around Brain Pickings, I can't help but think that if I had a successful website, this is what it would look like. You can get lost for hours in her articles, which are mini-essays about thinkers ruminating on life in ways that interest her.

The unspoken goal of Brain Pickings is to make intellectual content more accessible. Popova consistently shares her research in a way that's sympathetic to the reader. Sometimes, the ideas come from dense tomes that few of us have the time to read, so she provides value in several ways:

  • She introduces us to relevant points in the history of ideas.
  • She briefly summarizes each idea's relevance to "how to live and what it means to lead a good life," which benefits everyone.
  • She directs us to classic texts worthy of further exploration.

Her articles also follow an in-house structure: she uses her own understanding to provide commentary that contextualizes and supplements a few select quotes. Her style is what I would call "curational": she shares and annotates pieces of wisdom that help her make sense of the topic, book, or author under discussion. This process provides a window into what we can learn from classic texts and important thinkers.

The donation model for independent creators

From what I can tell, Brain Pickings is supported primarily by donations. People who create for the web have been using Patreon to generate income instead of relying solely on advertising, and Brain Pickings is also supported by a subscriber-based model. It gives me hope that the best content can find enough subscribers to sustain the work it takes to create a website like Brain Pickings. I also follow YouTuber CGP Grey and Hack Education's Audrey Watters, who are also independent content creators. Their valuable work benefits the world in countless ways, and I hope that the subscription model is here to stay so that their work can continue.

I mention this here because the business models of content creators matter when I think about how I spend my time online. In an ideal world, independent creators would never compromise the integrity of their work for commercial reasons. I understand that this view is somewhat naïve, but I also believe that we should find ways to support people who share these values.

Humanities, why art thou?

If you're a humanities graduate and anything like me, you've probably subjected yourself to years of regular existential crises. We're an overly self-conscious bunch, and we like to read and research ad infinitum. It's especially exhausting, though, when we research our own employability and prospective career paths (if you're lucky enough to have one), and every month there's a new think piece about the "value" of the humanities. I would link you to a critical piece, but I've admittedly stopped reading them because of their impact on my self-worth, so here's a positive take from the New York Times about Virginia Wolfe and coding. (When all else fails, learn to code, I guess.)

What does this have to do with Brain Pickings? I think Popova's blog shows that there are opportunities to share humanistic knowledge in new ways. It doesn't need to be locked in academic journals or in books that no one reads. Publicly engaged research and writing should start with undergraduate studies by encouraging students in the humanities to blog, contribute to Wikipedia, and build things for the web. Brain Pickings seems like the kind of website only a student of the humanities could create, and I mean "student" in the broadest sense of the word. It's also a model for how to learn and how to use learning in ways that benefit others.

In other words, everyone should keep "a record of [your] own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — and [inquire] into how to live and what it means to lead a good life." Whether you make this public or not is up to you, but Brain Pickings serves as a good example of what's possible when intellectual curiousity is let loose on the web.


  1. In case the descriptor is insufficient, here's what should come to mind when I invoke "Total Noise" to describe our culture: that "undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that becomes both numbing and euphoric." ↩︎

  2. If you don't have the time or patience to read one of the most prescient, culturally significant essays published in the last 10 years, here's another excerpt that explains things way better than I can: "I suspect that part of why 'bias' is so loaded and dicey a word just now—and why it’s so much invoked and potent in cultural disputes—is that we are starting to become more aware of just how much subcontracting and outsourcing and submitting to other Deciders we’re all now forced to do, which is threatening (the inchoate awareness is) to our sense of ourselves as intelligent free agents. And yet there is no clear alternative to this outsourcing and submission. It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood. Since I was raised with more traditional, Enlightenment-era criteria, this possibility strikes me as consumerist and scary . . . to which the counterargument would be, again, that the alternatives are literally abysmal." ↩︎