How to Think, a new book from Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs, is very much of the times. In it, Jacobs examines the forces — both mental and technological — that conspire to make it easier for people to dig into their positions, to make it harder to understand opposing viewpoints. One big culprit? Human laziness.
“For me, the fundamental problem may best be described as an orientation of the will: We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking,” Jacobs writes. “Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar comforting habits.”
Jacobs, who wrote the book during last year’s presidential campaign, said that the idea was born after conversations he had with U.K. friends about Brexit, which he said was “marked by a lot of mutual incomprehension, a lot of hostility, a sense that if you’re on the other side from me on an issue, then there is a gulf between you and I that just cannot be crossed.” That sounds a lot like 2017.
I spoke to Jacobs about social media’s effect on thinking, the role of news organizations, and why he longs for the resurgence of RSS. Our conversation been edited for length and clarity.
: Is there a better way for news organizations to operate in this world? We’ve covered anti-filter-bubble tools such as the new one from The Washington Post, which offers opinion pieces with opposing viewpoints
. It’s a fine idea, but just because you create something like that doesn’t mean anyone is going to use it. If you’re a news organization that fundamentally believes your role is to make civil discourse better, what can you do? Is there an ideal tool?
: I think that a superb tool is already out there — I just don’t know how make people use it: It’s called RSS.
I love RSS, and I loved it even before Google Reader was a thing. With RSS, everything I see there, I see the context of medium-to longform posts and articles, something that’s going to take me a few minutes to read. When I see those same articles on Twitter, what I’m seeing is this kind of bulletpoint version surrounded by many other bulletpoint versions of other things.
What happens is that when people access what you’re doing on Twitter, what they’re getting is a reduced and oversimplified version. We all know that, if you post something that links to a long article, people will respond to your tweet without reading the article.
I know this is utopian, but I would love to see news organizations say, “if you want to follow us on Twitter, great, but we have an RSS feed that gives you a deeper understanding of what’s going on.” Granted, most people don’t want that. They want the bullet points. But I think that if you can nudge people towards RSS, you’d be nudging them towards a tool that has different and better affordances and fewer perverse incentives. It’s utopian, as I said, but I’m not going to give up on RSS.
Bilton: I think a lot of people will come to your book looking for something that’s focused entirely on giving readers actionable ways to improve their critical thinking skills. That’s not what the book is, ultimately, but you do have a checklist at the end of the book that offers techniques readers can use. Of those, which do you think is easiest for people to implement?
Jacobs: I don’t think there’s any question about it: “Give it five minutes.” If people don’t take anything else away from the entire book, it should be that. Every incredibly regrettable thing that I have said on social media, I have said within the first five minutes of something showing up. I would feel a lot better about my history as a social media user if I had had a five-minute delay. And I think Twitter would be doing a great service to humanity if they put a five-minute timer on tweets before people could respond to them. Of course, they won’t do that.
Photo of Rodin’s The Thinker
by Freddie Boy
used under a Creative Commons license.