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Book Review: The Death of Why

BY Tom Watson | Monday, July 27 2009

Every era has at least a few serious voices who openly question the new ways, the settled conventional wisdom around innovations in style, technology and social habits that change - at least on the surface - how society operates. As everybody else is celebrating the greatness of, well, themselves, these idoloclasts happily throw poison-tipped darts in a cultural clash with the totems of perceived progress.

Such a counter-programmer is my friend Andrea Batista Schlesinger, the 32-year-old New Yorker and progressive activist whose first book The Death of Why holds up a big, fat stop sign to those who would celebrate under the banner "all that is modern is good."

[Disclosure: Andrea is the longtime executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a progressive think tank on whose board of directors I've served since 2002. She's on leave from that position while working as a policy adviser to the reelection campaign of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.]

The Death of Why goes against the grain. It stands opposed to any triumphalist viewpoints regarding digital communications. You can easily read it as the diametric opposite of Jeff Jarvis's somewhat hagiographic What Would Google Do?, for example. Andrea doesn't believe the Internet in general - and Google specifically - has necessarily made us any smarter or more democratic as a society. While she praises the innovation of always-available information and the worldwide networked conversation made possible by the network of networks, she also strikes out at the idea of searching as knowledge, of linking as journalism or education.

And she uses one particular commentator's voice as a stalking horse for her arguments against the Internet-as-knowledge: mine. In the fourth chapter - In Google We Trust - Andrea posits that the "Internet responds to curiosity as much as it creates it" but argues that "searching for answers" isn't the same thing as answering questions. Then she quotes me: "Certainly we're in far better shape, in terms of tools and ability, for deep inquiry than we used to be."

Not so fast, argues Andrea. "When I survey the search engine landscape, I see conditions that are less than inspiring of 'deep inquiry' especially for our youngest. I see the formation of habits of mind characterized by a dangerous lack of discernment." And young people, she says, bounce around as guileless link and search-box addicts, mistaking the search-cut-paste process for deep inquiry.

This is undoubtedly true in many instances. I've seen it. But I'm not sure it's a bigger problem than the use of Cliff Notes or the Xerox machine by earlier generations.  In the end, I'm not sure young Americans really are less inquisitive. That may be because of the field I've worked in for the last decade - progressive causes and philanthropy- tends to attract young, enthusiastic professionals who won't take no for an answer and seem to question everything. Then too, the social entrepreneurs I profiled in my book CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World were similarly driven to challenge every status quo they found - and to use digital technology to do so. Finally, my own three children are constantly questioning things that I tend to think of as settled subject matter, with no hesitation to challenge and probe and looks
things up. They don't necessarily follow the leader.

Nonetheless, The Death of Why is an important book - and I think it's particularly timely, given the challenges that major American institutions (like big newspapers and Federal agencies) are facing in an increasingly crowd-sourced era. It's a great book for journalists concerned that the so-called "link economy" leaves serious inquiry out in the cold - and for e-government types who seek to go beyond merely making information available in vast databases but to actually encourage citizen involvement in our republic.

And this goes for newspapers, whose approaching demise the author mourns loudly. Currying no favor with the digerati, Andrea argues (and I agree) that the decline of news organizations is bad for democracy and that it's unlikely that blogs and online specialty sites will rise to replace the full gamut of professional journalism. "When you start the day with the newspaper," she writes, " you start with the recognition that you are a person in the world, with a need and responsibility to engage."

Throughout the book, Andrea decries the echo chamber of modern information and communications - the trend toward finding what you want (the viewpoint you already support) rather than coming across something you didn't know. That "self-segregation" does indeed permeate much of what we take as political dialogue for instance. Andrea decries the national political process in the modern age, panning the 2008 Presidential debates between Senators Obama and McCain as flimsy and personality-driven, and slyly pointing out that Hillary Clinton's campaign was rejuvenated when she came out of the bubble and started taking tough, unscripted questions. "The irony is that the candidates need not fear questioning," she says.

Perhaps the best quality of The Death of Why lies in its inherent skepticism toward what we've come to accept as the right way to approach learning, particularly public education. Andrea's a bit young for curmudgeon status, but her gruff and skeptical take on so-called "financial literacy" is welcome. So much of this kind of education is really marketing, priming the sales pump for future consumers. And if that passes for inquiry, we're in serious trouble. Writes Andrea: "Our democracy will suffer if the youngest among us grow up thinking that today's society and the economy that sustains it are working just as they should."