Access to information is a privilege

Here’s something that struck me recently: access to good, reliable information is a privilege.

Not everybody can get the same sources of information. Not everybody has the time or energy to scrutinise everything they read. Not everybody has the background or expertise to discern good information from bad.

Let’s take the current pandemic as an example. I’m unusually well-informed for a layperson:

Very few people have access to all these things!

That’s not to say that I know everything, that my actions are perfect, or that my behaviour is better than anybody else’s. I’m sure I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But my response is informed by all of these inputs. There are plenty of other people who only get the confused government briefings, or the papers, or the TV news, and adjust their responses accordingly.

It’d be easy for me to pour scorn on people who are doing things that I think are dangerous or reckless – but they may well be working from different information, and picking the best response based on those inputs. Based on what they’ve heard, they might think that I’m the reckless one!

Is it a problem? Absolutely.

But I’m trying hard not to blame individuals, or call people “silly” or “stupid”. It’s a systemic failure of our media and political system that there’s so much confused and poor-quality information, not an individual failing of people who read it. Not everyone can read the entire Internet each night.

If you start from a position that writes off everyone except you as “stupid” for ignoring the “obvious” course of action, then nothing will change.

If you see it as a systemic issue, not an individual failing? Well, maybe that’s something that we can work on.

I try to assume that most people are rational and behave in good faith, and they’re trying to do the best they can based on their circumstances, values and knowledge. It’s not always true, but it tends to go better than assuming everyone else is stupider than me.