Silos and Culverts

by Colette Lebel

We are living in the information era. There is no longer any need to collect costly home encyclopaedias or even to go to the library to read them: There’s an answer to everything, and it’s really easy, just look it up on the internet. Access to knowledge is no longer a luxury reserved for the elite. Almost everyone can take advantage of it at very little cost. What a breakthrough for humanity!

Thanks to brilliant algorithmic calculations, What we get when we query the internet draws its relevance from searches that we, or people like us, have already conducted. And that’s very useful since there is such a colossal amount of information available! So, through some obscure amalgamation, we are assigned preferences by the instrument and it offers us content that should be of interest to us. We can then advance our theories, increase our knowledge and join a network of people interested in the same things we are. Easy and fascinating!

There is however a dark side. In the past, reading the newspaper would show us all the information available, whether we liked it or not. We had to read, if only minimally, all the headlines and then decide if we wanted to continue reading. With the internet, information is brought to us according to our assigned preferences; it’s as if we were being offered an abridged version of the encyclopaedia in which only the pages people like us normally like are kept. Without realising it, we are getting deeper and deeper into our paradigms. We are building tall silos of belief that are never challenged by those who don’t think like us. Admit it, that’s very comfortable.  

Be warned: That’s how opinions become polarised. We don’t know anymore where those who think differently are located nor do they know where we are. We even forget that other perspectives exist and that there are lines of thought different than our own. It then becomes impossible to achieve true sharing, carry out concerted efforts for the common good, and even acknowledge the other in their difference. Positions crystalize. We no longer understand each other. We become suspicious. There are confrontations. There is danger.  

Now more than ever, thorough general knowledge has become a requirement to maintaining harmony in our lives. History and philosophy classes must be maintained and valued just like any other window on the world. Besides, teaching cooperation should be included in all school curriculums because cooperation leads to dialogue, to openness and to empathy.

We inevitably need spaces for shared knowledge, zones that are used as culverts allowing for sound, respectful pluralistic exchanges.

To reprise the idea put forward by the prolific author Peter Drucker, as men and women we must take on the shape of the letter “T”. The vertical portion of the “T” represents the specialised knowledge we’ve acquired, our expertise, and the horizontal portion reminds us to stay open, to cooperate with others, who, being different from ourselves, have something to teach us.   

As for Yves Citton, professor at Université Grenoble-III and author of Pour une écologie de l’attention, he recommends that in terms of information, we adopt “strategies of dispersion that, through fate and intuition, let us find what we are not looking for. Thus, connecting to other points of view that will lead us to expand, enhance and nuance our understanding of the world.”   

Information technologies obviously open some amazing possibilities, from creating unifications to renewing the democracy of a peer-to-peer universe. There is a huge potential there. But let’s beware of giant silos materializing: They could dumb down human thinking, cut us off from a diversity of opinions and feed complacent conformism. Let’s make sure that we maintain our culverts and drop in from time to time. 

Colette Lebel's picture

Colette is agronomist and director of cooperative affairs at La Coop fédérée. She was the first woman to be appointed as head of training of the boards of director within the cooperative network and works to improve women representativeness within the boards of directors. Dedicated cooperator, Colette had the opportunity to pass on his expertise in several missions abroad both for La Coop and SOCODEVI.