Posted by: Yorgos | March 2, 2008

Text 5 – Useless Knowledge

I am a great fan of what I call (and I presume many others call as well) useless knowledge. I am always interested in learning little insignificant details of things irrelevant to my life and irrelevant to my immediate interests. The Internet proved to be an immense source of this kind of knowledge that cannot be used other than to answer a question in Trivial Pursuit or to draw attention to you for a few seconds in a conversation (before it moves on to other useless knowledge or some useful knowledge).

Earlier today, however, I was reading Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. Even though I haven’t got to the end yet and I don’t know where he’s going to lead his arguments, he made a reference to this particular kind of knowledge as a menace and as an ominous sign of our times. Basically, what he said was that, while in the earlier years of typography the news and information the people were getting were immediately related to their lives and were linked to the ways they were making decisions, after the invention of the telegraph and onwards there is a constant rise (and an outright takeover) of what can be called useless information, interesting, yet distant, out of the ordinary, but detached from our daily lives. When he was writing that (around 1985) it was the television that provided all this information. Now it is both the Internet and TV. News becomes a form of entertainment, not related to the ways we are going to lead our lives. And this is, at least partially, true. When was the last time that hearing something in the news made us change not the way we see the world, but the way we act within the world. Of course, learning about the war in Iraq has made me look at things in a different way, but it has changed neither my way of living nor my overall “philosophy” of life. And, really now, how many of us become activists in order to correct the injustices of this world?

There are, however, counterarguments. No matter if we like it or not, no matter if we agree with the term, no matter if we actually believe in it, the world has indeed become globalized. Either we are talking about environmental affairs or politics or many more other things, decisions made and actions performed all over the world can actually affect myself. Living in a country which is a part of the European Union means that things decided in Germany can alter the policies of my government. Forests burnt in distant countries cause problems all around the world. A murder occurring in China because of an argument over a video game (actual incident) can help me understand of the consequences of video games in my life. I want to know this stuff, they are actually useful to me, I am writing a blog and I put this information in here; universities thrive on such knowledge providing examples for every possible situation. The media people cannot possibly know what can actually be useful and what not, so they pretty much throw everything in there; it rests up to me to choose.

Oh, and yet, and yet…do I really need all this useless information or is it just the media that make me think I need it? Adorno has said something similar, Hannah Arendt has said something similar and I can think of quite a few people who think this way. My life is probably different not because I have access to the information carried by the media, but because I have access to the media themselves, carrying those information. And this is not so much “carrying” as “imposing”. Once again, the medium is the message and the information carried is only formed in a way to shape our ductile needs. I don’t actually know more. Information turns out NOT to be knowledge and this is a distinction I should have made from the beginning. We tend to forget what happened to Britney Spears yesterday, but we are craving to get some more the next day. Knowledge is something a lot more general, a lot more useful, something that, in the end, makes the title of this post an oxymoron. You can build upon knowledge in ways you cannot build upon information. Because you can gain profit in the stock market if you have the right information, but you need knowledge in order to understand how it works and, perhaps, ameliorate it. And media, these days, rarely provide knowledge, even if we would like to call it like that.

As you can see, every paragraph contradicts the previous one. I haven’t made up my mind yet about this subject. I might dislike the TV, but I love computers and the Internet so much that I can’t disown them wholeheartedly. There must be many good things in them and I would welcome suggestions and discussions on the topic. Of course, I will come back to the subject soon.


  1. I also don’t know what I think… you make a strong case for both sides.

    I do, however, think it is important to know what’s happening around the world because, whether I like it or not, things happening outside of my day-to-day existence can directly affect me now — like you said. And, you know, sometimes things I hear in the news do drastically change my outlook on life or my actions.

    I wonder what it would be like if I could just cut myself off from all this information. Mind you, I stopped listening to the radio for a couple of months and I suddenly felt lost in the world, not knowing what’s going on around me, and unable to participate in conversations about the most basic but immediate social issues. (I listen to talk radio, not music…)

    I think one problem here, which you touched on, is how do we decide what is useful information, or knowledge, and what isn’t? I would like to think everything is, if I use it to some effective purpose. But maybe none of it is. If you limit it to that information that is directly relevant to my everyday life and nothing else, then all I’d really need, in theory, is information about how to feed and clothe myself!

  2. Sorry about the long comments — man, do I ever go on and on!

  3. The longer your comments, the better! I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff. It all comes down to that useless information is so fun and addictive, that it doesn’t matter if it’s bad for you…you need it…hehehe…like so many other things in life (hmmm, I wish I had put that in my post).

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