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Procedural Literacy is the New Black


It has to have been 4 or 5 years since I’ve seen a recent Simpsons episode.  After catching up on the last few episodes, I can really appreciate how “with it” the Simpsons have been.  After all, it’s gotta be relevant if being parodied by the Simpsons.    Particularly relevant is episode 21, where Bart’s teacher is replaced with a younger, hipper instructor, Zack– who turns what all the students consider to be  “fashionable” into something functional.

Bart: “Then Zack skyped us, live blogged our spelling bee, and friended us on facebook!”

Zack: “Are you telling me you memorized that fact, when anyone with a cell phone can find it out in 30 seconds?

Martin: “I I…I’ve crammed my head full of garbage!”

The need for accessible procedural literacy is not a new idea.  Just like opportunities afforded by traditional literacy, it is obvious that a divide will occur between the advantaged, procedurally literate and the rest.  Right now, it is the case that a clear advantage goes to those who understand how computers work, how to use web 2.0, and own mobile technologies (as parodied by the Simpsons.)  Eventually, those with really really good memories may stay ahead in the race, but for the average person, not fully using our extended cognition will leave us in the dust.

Hulu: Simpsons, Season 21 : Ep. 2, from 7:44 to 9:26.
Teacher uses technology to engage students.

At the Digital Humanities Conference this year, I learned of the work going into the accessibility, organization, and processing of the information overload produced each day.  With all the stuff and information we live with, traditional approaches to managing our time, organization, and communication is changing faster than we are able to adapt.  As the upcoming  next generation of academics, I feel it is our responsibility to reform the way we are adapting to our new technology.  Creating something does not mean we will use it appropriately, nor that its benefits won’t come at the cost of something else.  On the other hand, the attitude “think about before all this existedpeople did fine” clearly mistakes the gadgets and observable manifestations of technology, for the conceptual advancements that they represent and employ.

Thoughtlessly using new things, however, won’t help us find new solutions and, instead, creates large amounts of information pollution.   Either we waste our time with a technology that didn’t really benefit us, or we produced something that took more time than necessary to utilize.  We find ourselves under the demands of those counting on us for things that we are expected to promptly satisfy, while we try to optimize and build patience in counting on things from unreliable others.  Maybe I’m too idealistic to accept that this is just how things are… I mean, “think about before all this existedpeople did fine.”

I dream of a world where one email is all that it takes… where people actually call you back …where I don’t have to call customer service 10 times and spend hours on the phone to correct a miss-billed invoice (– where’s the news-game for this?)

In another light, with all the information out there, on the news, in commercials, in advertisements, on the internet, on television, how can anyone know what to believe these days?  I know I’m left with a constant feeling of being manipulated.  Recently, I saw a video that presents information quite well.  At the very least, it convinced me that aesthetically pleasing videos packed with statistically significant facts is, probably, the most effective way to spread a message or “truth.”  Yet with such a well put together presentation, how do I know that this isn’t just a new way to manipulate my thinking?  At the very least, this video made me reevaluate my life, which, in the midst of so much information, is an impression I’m rarely left with.

Zack, Bart Simpson’s substitute teacher, eventually goes on a drunken tirade and gets himself fired for his repressed animosity against the education system.  Bart uses an over-the-top self-help book, which many find to be deprecated technology, to get his original teacher’s life together.  Education, books, pedagogical practices, and modern technology were all their own useful advancements.   Change isn’t a bad thing, but only if we actively try to make it good.  And if things are changing at a faster rate than we can manage, then our (lack-of) reliability will show for it.  Eventually, we’ll need to optimize ourselves, since we only have 24 hours in a day and a finite amount of memory.

I study and create technology, but it is also important that I know how technology is received, used, and understood.  Otherwise, I may find myself contributing to a greater problem at hand.  These days, I find that always having to catch-up with myself, is not how I’d like to live the rest of my life.  My “starred” g-mails don’t ever seem to go away, and the overhead to doing things seem to be annoyingly greater than necessary.  Our we just absurdly impatient?… perhaps, but the input of responsibilities grow at such a rate that our output can’t continue to keep up.  There are just more things to say no to, except everyone is too busy to read that email, much less reply.  In the midst of all that we are creating, defining, and doing, how can we even keep track of what everything means?

What then is “truth?”  Is it absolute? relative? subjective? pluralistic?… Perhaps, we are approaching the age of “procedural” truth and simple facts just won’t cut it anymore.

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