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Your reality, my truthiness and our web 2.0

I’ve just finished skimming quickly through the latest book on my desk titled “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society” by Farhad Manjoo. And am now going back through it to fully digest what Manjoo is saying. Because what he seems to be saying should make all social studies teachers (and all Americans, for that matter) to sit back and say “mmmmm.”

He starts by asking a pretty straight forward question

How can so many people who live in the same place see the world so differently?

and uses a wide variety of examples to claim that the new forms of communication technology – blogs, YouTube, RSS feeds, etc – are creating a society in which one true reality does not exist. As Americans, we pick and choose our own version of the truth. This idea of a fractured sense of reality has been discussed before but I like Manjoo’s easy narrative style.

Manjoo’s examples range from the Swift Boat episode of 2004 to Oprah Winfrey’s defense of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces in 2006.

The revelations (about the falsehoods in the book) were “much ado about nothing,” Oprah said, suggesting that what had really happened to Frey was less important to what one believed had happened to Frey.

He obviously loves The Colbert Report of October 17, 2005 when host Stephen Colbert first coined the phrase “truthiness.”

Colbert believed America to be split between two camps whose philosophies could never reconcile – those who “think with their head” and those who “know with their heart.” Colbert himself was a proud knower, and “truthiness,” he explained, was the quality of a thing feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually was.

In True Enough, Manjoo basically says that Web 2.0 communication tools makes it easier for us to lie and harder for others to know the difference.

. . . when we strung up the planet in fiber-optic cable, when we dissolved the mainstream media into prickly niches and when each of use began to create and transmit our own pictures and sounds, we eased the path through which propaganda infects the culture.

New forms of communication tools are hailed as good things; taking advantage of the wisdom of crowds, providing an engine for the “everyman” to have a voice and creating a flat world. Manjoo calls this brave, new world the infosphere.

But Manjoo suggests that

it’s probably unrealistic to think that we’ll undergo these changes without any pain.

and goes on to suggest that the pain has already started. He doesn’t deny the power of the new information technologies for good but also suggests that blogs and other forms of niche news marketing also provide the opportunity for people to

skillfully manipulate today’s fragmented media landscape to dissemble, distort, exaggerate, fake – essentially, they can lie – to more people, more effectively, than ever before.

So what?

Manjoo’s final conclusion is that the infosphere encourages the growth of something researchers call particularized trust. The growth of particularized trust comes at the expense of generalized trust. Generalized trust is basically a measure of how likely it is that two strangers from a given group will be willing to trust each other. In 2006, the number in the US was at 32%, down from over 60%.

Again so what?

Generalized trust focuses on how we view strangers and Manjoo argues that it plays a huge role in the general well-being (economy, health, culture) of a society. Particularized trust, on the other hand, focuses on how we feel about people who are like us.

Particularized trust destroys generalized trust. The more that people trust those who are like themselves, the more they distrust strangers. And when particularized trust outweighs generalized trust, loathsome things happen.

Big things like our current economic problems and small things such as kids in our classrooms not being willing to talk to one another because of the color of their skin or different religious beliefs.

I am a bit disappointed in Manjoo’s solution.

“Truthiness” means you choose. Choosing means trusting some people and distrusting the rest. Choose wisely.

I was hoping for more.

But . . . it does put the ball back in our court as social studies teachers. We need to be much more purposeful about giving our kids opportunities to practice 21st century literacy skills, to practice evaluating, to ask high-level questions and to be willing to look at an idea from all sides before choosing.

We also need to be willing to do the same ourselves.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. anon #

    I’m disappointed that you misquoted Manjoo in the “Particularized trust destroys generalized trust… loathsome things happen” quote:
    1) You omitted “far” in “particularized trust far outweighs”.
    2) You omitted “– the more they trust people in their own town, say–” without using ellipses to indicate the omission.

    To see what Manjoo actually wrote, paste “Particularized trust destroys generalized trust” into Amazon’s “Search inside this book” feature at . The quote in on page 226.

    I also disagree with Manjoo’s conclusion. I think the solution is “trust but verify”– that is, spot check your sources. Thomas Jefferson wrote “A patient pursuit of facts, and cautious combination and comparison of them, is the drudgery to which man is subjected by his Maker, if he wishes to attain sure knowledge.” (Go ahead, verify that quote!)

    January 11, 2009

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