The Mind Candy Kafe:
Replacing Truth with Placebo
by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author
Along with the many new information products flooding the marketplace, we are seeing a transformation of the way young people and adults come to know and understand their world.
With the shift toward electronic media and information, the challenge of knowing and comprehending is complicated by a movement toward superficial and plastic coverage. Deep thinking, deep reading and deep commentary are replaced in many quarters by Sound Bites, Mind Bites, Eye Candy and Mind Candy.
Something of no intrinsic remedial value that is used to appease or reassure another.
American Heritage® Dictionary
The implications for schools are dramatic. As schools are confronted by these new information sources, many of which are driven more by marketing and entertainment than sound educational philosophy, the teaching of information literacy becomes critically important as an antidote to the simulacra* and virtual truth which now parade as news and information.
*simulacra - images of the real thing.
I. Mind Candy?
Just what is meant by Sound Bites, Mind Bites, Eye Candy and Mind Candy?
Sound Bites are brief (15 to 30 second) media spots, often commissioned by politicians or interest groups, which attempt to state a position or explain an argument on a complex subject or issue. Since time is scarce and word limits tight, sound bites rely upon key words, phrases and images to make their point. Packaging (a flag waving in the background, for example) is often more important than the actual words and content. The medium is more important than the message. Ideas are condensed in simple, highly compact terms.
Mind Bites are related to sound bites but more apt to show up in traditional print media as they attempt to keep pace with their electronic relatives. We see some newspapers behaving more and more like evening TV news broadcasts, emphasizing photo opportunities and replacing solid news with scandals and stories based on hearsay and innuendo. Complex issues like the tobacco settlement in the U.S. find themselves summarized in five paragraph stories which attempt to tell us what is contained in the ordinal document of more than 20,000 pages. Once serious newspapers find themselves crossing over into terrain previously reserved for the tabloids.
Eye Candy is a term first applied to the enticing format of programs such as MTV. We have come to expect dazzling displays of graphic virtuosity with fast moving video and musical elements that grab the viewer's attention forcefully and intensely. Once again we see that packaging may be more important than content.
We see eye candy making its way into schools as multimedia presentations, "full of sound and fury, often signifying nothing." I remember watching two fifth graders presenting a PowerPoint report on tigers which employed every known transition and special effect the software offered. Content? It was very slim, indeed. Even less information than we have come to expect from one of those time-honored encyclopedia-based reports. There was little thinking or information value here. But the special effects were impressive . . .
When it came time for a picture of a tiger, unable to find one, they substituted a picture of a lion! No explanation. No excuses. No footnote. And no one seemed to notice or care. After all . . . they were both members of the cat family!
Mind Candy is a more recent term arising out of the World Wide Web and more recent developments in the news and entertainment world. We begin to see difficult and troubling content simplified and sweetened for general consumption. We also see the definition of news blurring as some stories seem to flourish free of facts and evidence. The line once separating news and entertainment has frequently faded as some "news" stories take on a "circus" or "arcade" flavor.
Recent coverage of Linda McCartney's death provides a chilling example of mind candy. For several days the news media indulged in one of their feeding frenzies as various agencies refused to answer their questions. Rather than celebrating or honoring the woman, they churned up rumors about assisted suicide and illegal movement of the body, forcing Paul to turn from his grieving to deny various reports. The very fact that there were few facts and little information fed the frenzy.
Some interesting stories from April and May . . . (Philadelphia Inquirer, Time, NY Times: In Death, the Goal Is No Questions Asked, Tribute to Linda McCartney, Linda McCartney Did Not Die in California - The Beatles Jukebox and PEOPLE ONLINE: Linda McCartney's long and winding journey comes to an end USA Today: McCartney death leads to inquiry)
All too often the best news stories these days (the ones which sell) are stories filled with conjecture, speculation, suspicion and innuendo. In the McCartney case, the refusal of Arizona authorities to answer press questions about her death (in compliance with privacy provisions of the state law), allowed them to fabricate all kinds of false stories as "hypotheses." When they turned to California to see if any papers had been filed there, the authorities confirmed there were none, fueling all kinds of speculation about illegal movement of the body across state lines.
This is news coverage and mind candy at the extreme . . . an offense to the family and a violation of decency which has risen from tabloid status to prime time and front page status. Serious matters of state often fail to gain the headlines as they are shoved aside in favor or more entertaining and interesting calamities and scandals.
2. Mind Candy Kafe?
What are the long term consequences for democratic societies as the global consolidation of entertainment, publishing, software and news companies continues with little opposition or restraint? How do citizens come to make reasonable choices when huge corporations control the front pages of your newspapers, your TV stations and your textbooks?
The Mind Candy Kafe is a name for this phenomenon . . . the supply of news and information in hot and spicy servings which often undermine understanding and misrepresent reality.
Do we face declining literacy as a result of the Kafe? A number of studies indicate that fewer and fewer people are thinking seriously about serious issues. Throughout the society, they report, reading of books and newspapers is declining (Source: JOHN CONSOLI, Good News, Bad News., Editor & Publisher, 05-03-1997, pp 18.). Viewership and listenership is also falling for news on TV and radio.
. . .a major study of television news
viewership released yesterday said that the number of people willing or able to watch the news is declining faster than the national voter turnout. The study, by the Washington-based and endlessly named Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said that while 60 percent of Americans watched a nightly news program in 1993, only 48 percent did so last year; and this year, only 42 percent were watching. (Newspapers are holding steady at about 50 percent, according to the survey.)
Newsday, 05-14-1996, pp A08 "Why They Tune Out the News," Paul Vitello.
Many of us would look to the schools as guardians of the culture and protectors of sound learning, but even schools might fall prey to the Kafe as large corporations offer the latest in networked information products. It will take, as Jefferson put it long ago, "Eternal Vigilance" to protect democracy under these circumstances.
3. The Age of Glib?
"We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning."
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981
Does this Mind Candy Kafe presage the arrival of an Age of Glib? Are we entering a phase during which we will confuse the accumulation of massive piles of information with the attainment of Truth?
Just what do we mean by "glib?"
The American Heritage Dictionary defines glib as follows . . .
1. a. Performed with a natural, offhand ease: glib conversation. b. Showing little thought, preparation, or concern: a glib response to a complex question.
2. Marked by ease and fluency of speech or writing that often suggests or stems from insincerity, superficiality, or deceitfulness.
Synonyms: glib, slick, smooth-tongued. The central meaning shared by these adjectives is "being, marked by, or engaging in ready but often insincere or superficial discourse": a glib denial; a slick commercial; a smooth-tongued hypocrite.
Roget's Thesaurus offers many related terms which should cause all school leaders and teachers to sit up and take notice . . .
Falsehood: hypocritical (adjective)
hypocritical, hollow, empty, insincere, diplomatic
put-on, imitated, pretended, simulated, seeming, feigned
make-believe, acting, play acting
double, two-faced, double-tongued, shifty, sly, treacherous, double-dealing, designing, Machiavellian, PERFIDIOUS
plausible, smooth, smooth-tongued, smooth-spoken, glib, oily
mealy-mouthed, euphemistic, AFFECTED
canting, gushing, FLATTERING
For too long we have welcomed the surfing metaphor to describe the reading and research our students might perform with these new technologies. We have been content to send students down the hall to a room full of computers where they were urged to "Surf the Net for acid rain." All too often they ended up finding rock bands or drug stories with those words rather than information which might fuel a serious scientific inquiry. In all too many cases, this surfing trivialized the research process and inspired little more than a new version of "trivial pursuit."
What happens after surf ?
Photographed at Cronulla Point at South Cronulla, Sydney
If students always surf along the surface, will they ever learn to think for themselves?
Will they settle for the sound bites, the mind bytes, the eye candy and the mind candy which is offered up by the media like sticks of chewing gum?
Or will they develop a healthy skepticism about the information (and noise) streaming past them?
In many cases, the mountains of information combine to obscure meaning and delay the search for understanding. Without a dramatic commitment to the teaching (and practice) of information literacy skills in school, our students will be ill prepared to find their way.
The New Plagiarism. The New Plagiarism outlined in the May issue of From Now On, is one example of the trend outlined above. We hear complaints from teachers that electronic text has spawned a virulent strain of student copying. We see many young people scooping up and saving dozens of pages of information without necessarily bothering to read, digest, challenge or synthesize. Some have even suggested that this new "electronic shovel" and its ally, indiscriminate cutting-and-pasting, may actually obscure meaning and dilute the quality of student thought.
The Disneyfication of History. Many electronic sources are locked into the present tense, offering a remarkably flattened view of history (as Sven Birkerts points out in The Gutenberg Elegies). The December, 1996 issue of From Now On, explored the treatment of important thinkers, leaders and celebrities on the Web and found that celebrity status (availability of t-shirts on Fisherman's Wharf) often correlated with number of Web pages better than the person's contribution to civilization. We see little mention of history, or we see sanitized and candy coated versions "made for the screen." The Placebo!
The Downgrading of Books, Libraries and Librarians. We hear politicians and school administrators in some places calling for the end to libraries and librarians as they praise the advent of the Internet as if electronic information could provide the breadth and depth of knowledge afforded by a good library. Even though critics like Clifford Stoll (Silicon Snake Oil) have noted that a huge percentage of the world's books and intellectual treasures remain undigitized, these leaders begin to cut off funds and resources which are needed to maintain sound print collections.
Despite the fervent promises of Internet proponents about the "free" materials which will be available to one and to all, the flow of free materials has been dramatically choked off by the profit motive which is still held in high regard by many content providers. Even museums and historical archives are sometimes slow to share their collections as they eye the revenue which might be lost through free access.
5. Finding Your Own Examples
Most days it is easy to find examples of the Mind Candy Kafe on the Web sites of many of the so called "leading" newspapers of the world. Give it a try and see for yourself.
Which stories gain the primary attention and focus?
How rich is the fact content? How important is scandal?
Can you find examples of any of the following?
Go to this list of newspapers and see what you can find.
6. The Antidote? . . .
Schools can equip students for this Mind Candy Kafe by showing students how to make up their own minds, searching beyond the surface level until they have a solid basis for insight.
A great start can be found at the ALA (American Library Association) Web site, where new Information Standards are available.
Several other great sets of resources are emerging from the teacher librarian community in Australia.
Teaching Information Skills - a CD-ROM program from the Australian School Library Association which can run on either Windows or Mac computers. The program "provides an opportunity for teachers to enhance their understanding of the information process and helps to develop confidence and competency in teaching information skills across the curriculum. The program also provides strategies and collaborative planning processes that help teachers work towards the progressive development of skills and competencies using integrated resource-based learning."
Computers, Research and Students: A Survival Kit for Teachers & Parents, by Jill Johnston & Karen Visser. This award-winning notebook and set of diskettes (Windows format) can also be ordered from the Australian School Library Association by sending an e-mail inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org The goals of the first of a series of workshops are listed here as a sample.
Today's workshop aims to help you . . .
- develop an understanding of how easy it is for students to create assignments with little understanding of the content
- relate information technology to research skills and the information process
- develop strategies for setting assignments which require students to analyse and understand the information they have downloaded.
Jill and Karen's workshops include activities which show how easy it is for students to cut and paste reports in less than 3 minutes. They then provide Steps in Designing "Cut and Paste Proof Assignments."
Given the challenges presented by the Kafe, we must equip students with the tools and the spirit to look deeply at Life and its essential questions, probing beyond the information packages aimed their way.
For students to make up their own minds, they will need the most powerful technology of all . . . well developed questioning skills.
Questioning is the basis for information literacy - the ability to interpret information and extract or create new meaning, to solve problems and make decisions based on reliable evidence and a thorough understanding.
- Questions enable us to search for pertinent information.
- Questions convert data into information and information into insight.
- Questions enable us to interpret information.
- Questions take us beyond interpretation by supporting synthesis and the development of new understandings.
For more information on developing a toolkit of student questioning skills, consult the following articles previously published in From Now On:
In order to reach this goal of teaching students strong information skills, we must dramatically modify traditional approaches to school research which all too easily fall prey to the glib nature of new information sources. No more "go find out about" topical research projects like "Go find out about Montreal."
If we hope to develop an appreciation for insight and a skills base which equips students to look beyond the superficial, then we must challenge them to study some questions and issues in depth over time - extending perhaps to a full year. (See the article 500 Miles: Engaging Students in Year Long Explorations) We must focus these inquiries on real time, authentic issues, many of which elude simple answers. Schools must make the search for Truth a prime goal of research instead of the mere (and often mindless) search for information.
7. The Results
Despite the serious threat posed by the shift of information technologies toward plastic and superficial knowledge, schools can emphasize the importance of deep reading and deep thinking. If we do a good job of equipping students with information literacy skills, we will end up with students who can . . .
- make up their own minds
- work well in teams
- solve problems with independence and ingenuity
- speak, present and write persuasively