Complexity and Information Literacy

It might be out-of-style to quote someone as old-school as Lionel Trilling, that hater of kitsch and brow-beater of the beats, but I’m in love with this quote:

The job of criticism would seem to be, then, to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty. (Thanks to The Curator)

It ties together two of my favorite topics: criticism and complexity. As Trilling says, the act of criticism, which is tied up with judgment, highlights the difficulty that arises when you are dealing with something that demands attention, and cannot be explained as a summary of quick factors. This is the status quo of today’s information environment, where at least one study highlight the ways that ebooks have added to the overall complexity, not, as many digital utopians would prefer, to simplify it. The heart of librarianship is helping people understand and manage that complexity, not to erase it. Pretending that such complexities don’t exist leads students and faculty astray, and myopia, both of the digital and print varieties is a fatal flaw. Donald Norman’s new book, Living With Complexity, helps circle back around to Trilling’s point:

In attempting to reduce the frustrations caused by the complicated nature of much of today’s technology, many solutions miss the point….The real problem is that we truly need complexity in our lives. We seek rich, satisfying lives, and richness goes along with complexity. (10)

Now, it seems like I’m meandering into the “you must be an elitist snob” territory, because who says complex is sought out by everyone for their enjoyment/edification. But Norman makes the point that many “simple pleasures” are actually complex: cooking, reading, hunting, playing cards, gambling, fishing, passionately following baseball, or even shooting marbles are fairly complicated tasks, whether or not they involve the high-browness that exemplifies the stuff that Trilling would champion as culture. But complexity is among us, and rather than gloss it, it’s our job to help people understand it.

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