How to Inform Yourself in an Age of Information Overload: Columbia University’s Global Reports

ColumbiaGlobalReports.pngIt’s hard to be informed  about what the hell is happening in the world these days.

I suspect you’ll agree with me. But even though “fake news” and “alternative facts” (or whatever phrase we’re using instead of “lies”) pose serious problems, that’s not what I want to talk to you about today. Because while there are significant issues with the media in terms of its quality, the way it potentially traps us in confirmation-bias-bubbles, I think the scarier truth is that, even if we didn’t have to worry about bias or the manufacture of consent (to borrow from Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman), etc., I think it would still be difficult to stay informed. And that’s because the world is not that simple.

Before you accuse me of stating the obvious, trust me when I say that it’s not nearly as obvious as it seems, and I have the perfect solution for you if, like me, you’re interested in having informed views on our world.

Regarding my “the world is not that simple” thesis, what astonished me when I tried to inform myself – even on a basic level – on topics ranging from terrorism to the economy to immigration to civil rights, not to mention the innumerable conflicts going on this very moment, was how interconnected all these subjects were. For example, when I started researching the causes of the Syrian Civil War that is still raging, I found texts that were constantly alluding to other historical events or people and, in many cases, I needed to understand these references just to understand what I was reading. Granted, I didn’t have to check the references, but I wanted to truly inform myself, not just memorize the opinions of others so I could mindlessly parrot them as if they were my own.

So researching Syria led me to researching the Kurds…and Turkey…and the Middle East as a whole…and on and on to the point where “being informed” felt like a utopian, if not quixotic, quest. The idea of being able to state with absolute certainty my beliefs on anything seemed absurd. Perhaps you’ve had the same experience, where a subject seems so complex, or there’s no way to learn enough to know anything for sure, and so it’s easy to resign yourself to either holding an opinion without proper support, or not think about the subject at all.

My advice? Don’t do that. Instead, check out Columbia University’s relatively new series, Columbia Global Reports.

According to their mission, the novella-length works of journalism in this series aim to analyze underreported events. For instance, there’s a book on Boko Haram in Nigeria, how and why the economy crashed in 2008, Iraq’s oil, and more. So far, I’ve read two books in the series – Basharat Peer’s A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen, and Nicolas Pelham’s Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East. The first of these was a revelatory look at the ways Narendra Modi and Recept Tayyip Erdoğan, in India and Turkey, respectively, have pushed their countries toward authoritarianism. We get to see the careers of both leaders, but the story is really about the intricate, often violent, cultural development of these countries. The second book is even more ambitious, as it covers the entire Middle East, while constantly drawing our attention to the Ottoman Empire, whose history illuminates the past and may in fact offer solutions for the future.

I was tempted just now to admit these may sound like dry topics, but I don’t believe they are or that you think that, either. For good or ill, it’s getting harder to understand our world without understanding the larger conflicts around us. And while this series won’t make you or me an expert on any of these topics, I think the staggering amount of information they are able to synthesize is itself staggering. Best of all, reading these brief, but deeply provocative books, will make you want to read even more. And isn’t that what all good books should do?

If you’re like me, and you want to be better informed about the world but aren’t sure where to start, you can’t go wrong with this incredibly useful series.

So go read it (i.e., the entire series – yep, you heard me, the entire damn series). Now.

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