the right way to be ignorant

I’ve been thinking a little about ignorance.
It was prompted by this mini-Twitter-rant on July 2 by Sean O’Neal, who writes for the A.V. Club (@seanoneal on Twitter):

What is it with this recent rush to proclaim proudly that you’ve never heard of someone/something? When did not knowing stuff become “cool”? To follow up on my last tweet and the many replies: I don’t mean eschewing the “mainstream” or some anti-populist stance. Nor do I mean admitting you aren’t familiar with something as opposed to lying that you do. I mean saying “who?” or “never heard of them” while sitting in front of a machine that can quickly get you familiar. Or worse, after reading an article that gives you that very info. Why is that cool? People used to take pains to appear knowledgeable, even about things they hate. Is it just so easy to be informed now that it’s somehow cooler to completely ignore it? Are we really that self-centered as a culture now?
I’m gonna quit talking about this. Point being: Google it, bitches. Then glibly dismiss it knowledgeably. That’s what the cool kids do.

I’m someone that has an unfillable appetite for things that I don’t know, and I’m also a person that needs to write things down to process them. So when I’m blogging, I’m constantly deciding how much I want to write from a position of ignorance. Sometimes it’s an easy call; if I’m writing about a concert I’ve been to, I can be pretty confident in my own opinions, even if they could be more informed. With other topics, there’s always a little more that I could know before I write. But one thing that I hold to like a shield is that I only write from what I know, not from what I kind-of know.
College taught me (or is teaching me!) the difference between what you know and what you kind-of know. I came to the school thinking that I would play it like a free agent; taking a few classes then deciding on a major. But then I experienced what it was like to be in a real music class, where people were interested in the things that I was interested, and where the professors knew what I wanted to know. And in that first semester, I realized that the things that I kinda knew–pieces of information that other people had told me, all manner of “conventional wisdom,” pieces of music I only knew from reviews and history books, ideas I had stitched together from fragments of knowledge–none of it was going to cut it in class. It’s a humbling position to be in. It means asking a lot of questions. It means holding back first impressions. It means being always open to the idea that you could be wrong.
[Bear with me, this will come back to O’Neal]
The most important change that I made was to begin maintaining a mental firewall between those things I know and the things I kind-of knew. It meant that when I heard of something new–this band has a new record out and it’s pretty good, X composer’s first piece is his best, X writer’s essays are better than her fiction–I would bookmark it as something to come back to before I added it to my body of knowledge. And this is where I really resonate with O’Neal’s question: “Is it just so easy to be informed now that it’s somehow cooler to completely ignore it?” It’s really hard to maintain that firewall on the internet. We’re constantly bombarded with fragments of information that we don’t follow up on, from RSS feeds, Twitter feeds, Tumblr tags, likes on Facebook. While sometimes the headline is the story (deaths, elections), just as often I catch myself being subconsciously affected by the sheer repetition of opinion. It’s sometimes useful to have this tool that can instantly allow us to take the temperature of a large group of people, but this same power can also amplify facts and ideas that bear no relation to reality.
So I have a couple of answers to O’Neal:
The first speaks to his question about why people don’t bother to educate themselves about important things they might not be interested in. On the internet, it’s possible to get endless opinions really quickly. Because the internet is an archive, those reviews, blogposts, etc. are going to stick around, and because there’s always somebody that’s formed that opinion before you, for most people, discovery and criticism are simultaneous. Things don’t disappear anymore. That new record is going to be around forever, and so are the album reviews. That really takes away incentive to educate yourself about something now. You can always borrow a perspective later.
The second is more directly aimed at the “why should I care?” crowd. The internet is in a phase where you’re constantly asked to share yourself. Everything has a social tie-in somehow. It’s a demand that you share an opinion, and even more basically, that you have  one. So the most basic opinion is to say that this thing, this thing that everybody is talking about, is completely below my notice. I think it’s a shitty attitude, but even I am guilty of it sometimes. There’s just so much out there that sometimes, as basic triage, you just have to accept that there are other things you want to spend your time on.
Of course, that’s the time to keep your mouth shut.

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