iAt Book Club: “How to Think” Round Table


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February 20, 2018
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Two weeks ago iAt began a book club series featuring the book, “How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds,” by Alan Jacobs. Return to iAt throughout this week as various voices are added to the series, interact with one another and respond to the book. Series contributors are Myles Werntz, Justin Bailey, Erin Olson, and Mary Nickel. Last week Myles Werntz shared more of his thoughts. In this final week Justin Bailey and Myles Werntz add their final thoughts.

 

Title: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds
Author: Alan Jacobs
Publisher: Currency (October 17, 2017)
Paperback: 160 pages
Price: $15.00 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0451499608

In this continued roundtable of Jacobs’ How to Think, I’d like to circle back to the question of online vs. offline thinking. Several of us have expressed 1) an observation that people tend to be less civil in online environments than they would be in person, and 2) the concern that our offline environments are rather homogenous, sorted into clusters based on affinity.

So, we are caught in a bit of a quandary. Offline, we reckon with embodied persons who cannot be so easily “blocked” as their online counterparts, but these offline interlocutors usually think along the same lines as we do. Online, we encounter significant ideological diversity, but the shape of our engagement – with written words rather than an embodied person – diminishes the empathy that we might otherwise offer to rival ideas. What is the way forward for cultivating the forbearance (a great word, Mary) that so often fails?

I think Myles is right to bring up virtue, and to inquire as to how these virtues might be inculcated into our common life. It is one thing to say, “we should all listen to others’ views in good faith!”, and quite another to ask what practices, institutions, technologies, and cultural currents might form us to do so. There certainly seem to be no shortage of currents that encourage us to label and lump.

We might ask this question for both our online and offline environments, since they have a reciprocal relationship with one another. Neither can be abandoned when it comes to learning how to think, and as mentioned above, both domains offer unique challenges and unique opportunities.

Just yesterday, I saw a study that found a significant difference in how we process opposing views in written form compared with when we actually hear a person’s voice (recorded or otherwise). There is, after all, a bit of the body in the voice, and hearing someone audibly explain her own viewpoint tends to diminish our instinctual reactions to dismiss what is being said.

This made me wonder, can advocating social media forms that allow us to hear (literally) the voices of others help us think more clearly? I’m not even sure what that kind of online dialogue would look like – all of us read more quickly than we listen – but maybe it is precisely our addiction to saving time and cognitive space (as Erin points out) that stop real thinking before it starts. If we are going to change the way we think together, it will require not just the aspiration to virtue but new practices, technologies, and mediating structures to break us of destructive habits.

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