As I write these words, the UK is poised to vote in a general election that’s likely to be old news by the time you read them: that will, like so many events, start to take on an air of inevitability in retrospect that it entirely lacked in advance.
I have no idea who will come out on top, or what it will mean for the country. What I do know, however, is that the weeks ahead of the election have been dominated by the ebb and flow of online campaigns, claims, ripostes, half-truths, distortions and outright lies. This is the way we live, today: in a world where technology not only touches upon everything we see and do, but where digital platforms define the environments within which beliefs and allegiances are contested—environments within which cascades of intense emotion and tribal allegiance often matter more than the events originating them.
Among other things, I write books about critical thinking aimed at students entering the world of higher education, and I’m deeply conscious of the challenges that the digital context poses to critical thought. Critical thinking entails a huge range of skills, but all of them start in the same place: pausing and thinking twice about what is going on. This may sound so basic that it’s barely worth saying. Yet the more time I spend working with students at schools and universities, the more I feel it needs repeating.
Why? Partly because so many information environments are structurally biased towards speed. Whether you’re using a messaging app like WhatsApp, responding to emails, or clicking through news stories, the speed of a response or an update acts as a proxy for importance and relevance. Rapid replies and up-to-date content are good; slow replies and old stories are bad.
For its users, social media is predicated upon freshness and churn. For the companies profiting from it, the situation is still more extreme. When it comes to data, more and faster is always better; when it comes to profiling and advertising, the aim is to map preferences and behaviours at the most instinctual end of the spectrum, where self-control is at its weakest. This means tapping into the emotions most likely to generate rapid, intense reactions. By design, the entire apparatus is intended to eliminate cognitive checks and balances.
How often do you see a sentiment going viral that confesses to uncertainty? “It’s complicated, and I don’t know what to make of it” is one of the least shareable things I could possibly write online about a general election—a sentence that has no place amid the performances of partisan rage and exhortation. Yet confessions of uncertainty like this are precisely the places where listening and learning begins, because they are the moments within which we start addressing the limitations of our knowledge—and start asking what it might mean to achieve better understanding.
What can we do and advocate in order to encourage this? When I’m writing and speaking, there are two pieces of advice about critical thinking that I give to pretty much everyone I encounter: young and old, students and professors, chief executives and interns.
First, pausing and thinking twice needs to be cultivated as a habit, not treated as a one-off act of willpower. If you want to think and learn effectively, you need to build times and spaces into your days within which it’s possible for you to focus concentratedly on questions that matter; within which you give yourself permission to change your mind, interrogate your own assumptions, and admit the gaps in your knowledge.
Second, you need to get into the habit of saying “I don’t know, what do you think?” This is because critical engagement is on some level always a collaboration: an attempt to move beyond your own initial perceptions and ideas, and to find out more. Finding out more may entail reading and research, but just as often it should draw upon an open and empathetic engagement with other people; with the exact opposite, in other words, of the online assumption that those who disagree with you must either be ignorant, idiotic or acting in bad faith.
“I don’t know” can be a hard sentence to share online, let alone say out loud. Yet the moments in which we admit to our own uncertainty are also those in which we also admit the possibility of becoming less deceived.
About the Author
Dr Tom Chatfield is a British writer, broadcaster and tech philosopher. His seven books exploring contemporary culture—most recently Live This Book! (Penguin) and Critical Thinking (SAGE Publishing), researched as a Visiting Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute—are published in over two dozen languages. A Non-Executive Director at the CLA, his recent work focuses on critical engagement with technology.