December 08, 2009

The Top 10 Ways To Think About Lists

Umberto Eco
OK, so the headline lied. As we approach the annual crush to listify the world in terms of the top stories of the year, the top pop divas and even the top education bloggers, top Umberto Eco talks to Der Spiegel about the world's fascination with lists.

Lists are a particularly important part of living life as a Bebo Boomer, filling hours of social network use by their users. Lists are also the part of our online life that is most derided: a waste of time, a feckless use of time by feckless people. Yet, lists have always been crucial to our existence and way of organising thought and acting out our intentions.

In the interview, Eco refers to the most common list of all: the one Google churns out after a search, and phrases in an interesting and most simple of ways what media literacy is all about:

Eco: [...] Google makes a list, but the minute I look at my Google-generated list, it has already changed. These lists can be dangerous -- not for old people like me, who have acquired their knowledge in another way, but for young people, for whom Google is a tragedy. Schools ought to teach the high art of how to be discriminating.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that teachers should instruct students on the difference between good and bad? If so, how should they do that?

Eco: Education should return to the way it was in the workshops of the Renaissance. There, the masters may not necessarily have been able to explain to their students why a painting was good in theoretical terms, but they did so in more practical ways. Look, this is what your finger can look like, and this is what it has to look like. Look, this is a good mixing of colors. The same approach should be used in school when dealing with the Internet. The teacher should say: "Choose any old subject, whether it be German history or the life of ants. Search 25 different Web pages and, by comparing them, try to figure out which one has good information." If 10 pages describe the same thing, it can be a sign that the information printed there is correct. But it can also be a sign that some sites merely copied the others' mistakes.

When "old people" (he said it) like Umberto Eco get it, I'm reassured. But when was the last time you saw a teacher in your school be quite as explicit, though, in how students should run a basic search?


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Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

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