Gorilla Theatre

Taking up John Warner's idea that we need to rethink how we expose new college students to the research process - maybe starting with that meme they just shared.

January 17, 2018

I enjoyed reading John Warner’s recent confessional – he was very nearly fooled for a moment by the “gorilla television” prank. Many people were fooled, because we’ve become accustomed to believing six impossible tweets before breakfast.* There are at least a couple of things going on – confirmation bias (it fits a pattern of shock and outrage many of us have been feeling about this president and confirms our sense that this is not normal and not right). The other is decontextualization. If you don’t know the person who tweeted is joking, and it comes to you in a stream of weary horror about the state of the world (“let that sink in” is a the new OMG in Twitterland), it’s just further proof that we’re in the handbasket and it’s getting much warmer. John suggests, and I heartily endorse this idea, that we should be starting our discussions of information literacy in the first year right here, not with how to find peer reviewed research for college writing. I’ve thought this for years.

Because I am as old as dirt, I remember when faculty who never really bought into information literacy as a valuable use of class time suddenly wanted library sessions. They noticed students were using websites in their research and were choosing them unwisely. Suddenly it was important that we have a discussion of how to tell good information from bad. (Somehow picking books off the shelf unwisely was an entirely different problem – to faculty, but not to students.) Some of these sudden converts were perfectly upfront about why this was a job for librarians. They weren’t familiar enough with the web to guide that discussion. I sense a similar dread right now, thanks concern about “fake news.” Students need to know how to think about this torrent of misinformation, propaganda, tilted news, disinformation, and clickbait. But someone who is confident about guiding students to good scholarly information may feel just as unprepared as students when it comes to knowing how to recognize these things as our information landscape undergoes rapid and unpredictable tectonic shifts. Our usual scholarly methods don’t work very well.  

The thing is, this is the world our students will graduate into. Learning how to find peer-reviewed articles won’t help students figure out if a gorilla-television claim is true. Isolating part of our information landscape and labeling it “high quality” is not only misleading, it fails to make a case for why that sort of information matters in a world where most of the information we encounter every day is published and shared under different rules. Academic scholarship can help us understand our world. As a method of inquiry it’s valuable and findings are often significant beyond a small circle of experts. If students graduate thinking of peer-reviewed research as a thing that only matters in academic circles, that it’s good “because I say so,” we’ve done them an injustice. We’re also not even touching on how to know how to interpret a bit of satire in a tweet. Why aren’t we following John’s advice and teaching this stuff as a preface to “here’s what scholars do to resolve questions”? Because it’s not our expertise. Because we know the literature of our field, not the current and rapidly morphing world of instant information. Because, like when the web was new, we’re just as confused as our students. But this really matters!                                                           

As I did my morning “what’s going on in the world?” routine, I noticed two stories that seem related to this issue. (Hat tip to Note to Self – both were in their newsletter, though on any given day, I’m likely to find articles that pertain to this issue.) One is about the design flaws that led to that horrifying incoming missile alert texted to everyone in Hawaii, sending them scrambling for cover. I happened to see that alert shortly after it went out. A CNN reporter in Hawaii tweeted it out and someone I follow retweeted it. We turned on the television (sports in progress, nothing on the crawl to indicate breaking news) and I checked other news outlets online – all of which were strangely silent. Within a few minutes I assumed this was a mistake or a hack – that was more than a half-hour before the correction went out from official channels. People in Hawaii didn’t have that luxury, since the message went out on news channels as well as texted to their phones. Apparently it was a goof due to terrible interface design, something that should have been obvious, but the people expected to use that system probably felt was out of their control, just something they had to work around. How often do we feel helpless about the technology we’re forced to use? How often do we see its flaws but feel we have no way of fixing them? How often do we not even know what’s going on under the hood, how decisions are being made by designers and their algorithms? How much trust do we place in unknowable technology? Do you know how your search is being shaped by Google? Do you have any idea how one post gets to your Facebook feed? Those information decisions are trade secrets and nobody at the other end is listening.

The other story is a brief follow-up to a notorious bungle. Two years ago, someone noticed Google was algorithmically labeling dark-skinned people as “gorillas” in their automated photo tagging. Google immediately apologized and began working on a fix. Wired decided to see how it’s going. The fix, apparently, is to simply omit labels for this class of animals, thus avoiding the technological problem. This is a bit like Facebook’s decision to fix their “fake news” problem by making it harder to get news on Facebook, to focus instead on puppies and family picnics. (They also haven’t fixed their advertising system to prevent illegal discrimination despite their claims, and their enforcement of hate speech prohibitions is pretty iffy.) Things get broken, and we get workarounds rather than real solutions. Real solutions would take real work.

Who ever knew this could be so hard? Most of us who deal in information – journalists, academics, librarians. So long as these information systems are designed primarily to gather personal data, seize attention, and sell ads, we will be struggling through this massive swamp, trying to figure out what to believe. That has never been easy, but the sheer volume we encounter today makes it far more difficult. If we start students out thinking about to make reasoned decisions about this kind of information, the kind they are used to seeing every day, there’s a chance they’ll be better prepared to think about how academic research is designed and vetted and why those processes matter. And if we hesitate because we don't understand this messy world, we'd better figure it out, and soon. 

*John has inspired me to add a footnote. This Through the Looking-Glass passage between Alice and the White Queen seems unusually apt these days:

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

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