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Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up

July 21, 2016

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William Poundstone teaches us how to navigate the new media and cultural landscape and stay truly informed.

I'm sure you've seen segments on the late night talk shows where they go out on the streets to gauge the general public's knowledge of general facts or American history. It's never very uplifting. The beginning of William Poundstone's new book, which includes similar anecdotes and evidence of just how misinformed we can be, feels a little similar to that. Luckily for the reader, that is just a starting point to a larger conversation about the nature of knowledge, how it's being affected by the rise of the internet, and how we as individuals and institutions can adapt to that new environment and make wiser decisions.

You may know William Poundstone for his books on brain teasers and mental exercises, like Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?, How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, and Rock Breaks Scissors. His new book, Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up, could also be seen as mental exercise or puzzle, but a more existential one. The big question at the heart of the book is: "How do you know what you don't know?" And, paradoxically, it takes some level of knowledge and intelligence to know that. As Poundstone writes, "Those most lacking in knowledge and skills are least able to appreciate that lack."

I've been making the argument to friends and family for years that the problem in our culture isn't that people are uninformed. Living in a world with a 24-hour news cycle and the internet literally at our fingertips, we're all taking in more information than ever before. The problem is that the information we get is too often the equivalent of junk food. And just like junk food has a lot of empty calories, too many of our information sources are full of gaps and incomplete information. Poundstone points to a larger problem than simply being willfully uninformed or even misinformed.

 

The great risk isn't that the Internet is making us less informed or even misinformed. It's that it may be making us meta-ignorant—less cognizant of what we don't know.

 

One great risk of the internet is that studies have shown that we're less likely to be able to recall facts when we know that information is stored somewhere. We're less likely to be able to recall the details of a painting if we take a picture of it. We're less likely to be able to recall what the capital of Delaware is if we know where to find that information. In that sense, the internet is making the recalling of facts obsolete, and surveys show those that have grown up with access to the internet, the most educated generation in our history, do indeed do much worse on trivia questions than previous generations.

So what do we do about that? Is it even necessary to do anything about it? Is it even a problem?

Head in the Cloud is an exploration of those questions. It is about how we absorb knowledge and recall it, how our memories work, and how gaps in our knowledge create misperceptions that "affect choices, behavior, and opinions in both the personal and public realm." It is also about how and why the ability to answer basic trivia questions, while it may seem, well, trivial, is an indicator of one's income and success—why, put quite simply, "There is a real-world value to knowing things," even if we can now look up any fact at a moment's notice. And finally, it is about how to navigate a cultural landscape—both as individuals as organizations—in which "the Internet [acts] as collective memory," and how we can best use today's media to stay truly informed.

Maybe most importantly, in a landscape dominated by infotainment, media spin, and clickbait vying for our attention, Poundstone's Head in the Cloud is also extremely funny and entertaining, so it will keep your attention and take you on a journey through the state of our individual and collective knowledge, and our cultural landscape. And not only will you learn a lot along the way, you'll relearn how to learn, how to know what you know, and how to know what you don't know.

We have 20 copies available.

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