I don’t usually note the birthday of Nygaard Notes, but this year I decided to reflect on the birth—in September of 1998!—and evolution of this humble newsletter. I had been thinking that the rise of the Internet, and social media specifically, might have rendered a publication like Nygaard Notes less relevant than it was in “the old days.” You know, the days when a few giant media companies dominated the information environment.
I was actually a bit surprised, when I reflected on it, at how the rise of the Internet has in some ways made Nygaard Notes (in my opinion) MORE relevant than it ever was. The final essay this week gives a hint as to why I think so. See if you don’t agree.
This week’s “Quote” of the Week dates back to June 1st of this year, when the New York Times ran an article on the front of the Business Section headlined “How Twitter Is Being Gamed to Feed Misinformation.” There were quite a number of remarkable points therein, but here is one of the best ones:
“This role for Twitter has seemed to grow more intense during (and since) the 2016 campaign. Twitter now functions as a clubhouse for much of the news. It’s where journalists pick up stories, meet sources, promote their work, criticize competitors’ work and workshop takes. In a more subtle way, Twitter has become a place where many journalists unconsciously build and gut-check a worldview—where they develop a sense of what’s important and merits coverage, and what doesn’t.”
There’s a very important subtext here, one about which I will have much more to say in future issues of Nygaard Notes.
Over the past couple of years, as I have had much time off for dealing with various health issues, I have thought a lot about Nygaard Notes, and why it is as odd as I think it is. This week is the birthday of Nygaard Notes, the first issue of which came out on September 5th of 1998. So please indulge me while I reflect a bit on the origins and nature of this humble newsletter.
Let’s start by noting what Nygaard Notes is NOT. Nygaard Notes is not a “blog,” as some people think. It did not arise from, nor is it intended for, “social media.” Nygaard Notes is a newsletter, which I guess is an old-fashioned term. That is, Nygaard Notes is sent to people who subscribe to it. You don’t simply get an alert that Jeff Nygaard has posted something to his timeline, or “tagged” you in a post on Facebook, or has a new update on Twitter. When I finish an issue, I send it out, via email or via the U.S. Postal Service, to all who have subscribed. Then, like any other newsletter, you can read it or toss it.
The Birth of Nygaard Notes
Nygaard Notes was born more or less by accident. At the time—1998—I was working with a group of activists, journalists, and writers who were trying to establish a weekly newspaper, one that would actually be printed on paper (quite common back in those days!) The idea was that it would be distributed throughout the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul as a free “alternative” newspaper. When the newspaper started publishing, I was to write a regular column. At that point I had never written on a weekly deadline, so I thought I would practice by producing a weekly sample of my writing. I sent my weekly writings to the rest of the organizing committee, to my friends, to their friends, etc, via email.
This went on for some months, until it became clear that the newspaper was not going to meet its financing goal, and the committee decided to fold the project. At which time I sent out an email to the (surprisingly numerous) recipients, saying, “Thanks for reading my stuff, but it’s time to move on, as the project of which this was to be a part is not going to happen.”
Much to my surprise, quite a number of people wrote back, telling me not to stop, that they wanted to continue reading what I was writing. Nobody was paying me to do it but, nevertheless, I persisted. And I still persist, 19 years later.
Nygaard Notes was, from the beginning, offered to its readers at no charge, while accepting no advertising nor underwriting from third parties. That’s why, starting with Issue #61, I began using the tagline, “Independent Weekly News and Analysis.” Independent, yes, but broke.
Soon after that tagline appeared I realized how much time it was taking to produce a newsletter of the quality and depth that I wanted. I then figured out that I needed it to produce some income so that I could spend less time at my various day jobs. Yet I was firm in my refusal to accept advertising—I did have a number of offers—and I also was suspicious of grants and foundation support—which I never sought and was never offered. It’s too easy to become dependent on those things, and they tend to diminish one’s independence, in my opinion. So…
On August 18th of the year 2000 I sent out what I called “an unprecedented appeal for funds.” It seemed simple enough. I said, “I’m asking readers to make an annual donation, kind of like a subscription.” I made sure to remind people that “This is voluntary.” I decided that, if enough people sent in enough money, I would keep driving myself crazy with this crazy project.
And, lo and behold, they did send in enough money. Not enough to allow me to be a full-time writer, but enough to spend the time and energy needed to produce what I think is a publication that is entertaining, challenging, and which plays a small part in helping readers to think a little differently. Nygaard Notes has always been about changing consciousness. It’s not about getting massive numbers of clicks from a mouse.
What it’s about is changing consciousness, which involves breaking free of the constraints on our thinking that are part and parcel of living in a “culture.” Especially a media-saturated and highly stratified culture like that of the USA.
The next essay is all about breaking free.
I’ve talked in these pages before about the effect of propaganda in steering our minds towards certain ideas and ways of thinking (and away from other ones). I have suggested that our thinking is shaped by forces outside of ourselves, and I further have suggested that much energy goes into maintaining these elite-sanctioned “thought systems” for the purpose of generating a broad agreement with prevailing systems and policies. The system that includes all these forces is what we call “culture” and it affects our thinking, or cognition, much more than most of us would like to admit.
I recently ran across and article by a guy named Paul Dimaggio in the Annual Review of Sociology from 1997. It explains so well the work that Nygaard Notes is doing that I decided to devote an entire essay to this article, which is called “Culture and Cognition.” It’s a bit academic, so I’ll do some translating along the way.
For instance, early in the article Dimaggio says, “In schematic cognition we find the mechanisms by which culture shapes and biases thought.” What he’s talking about is the use of an unconscious framework in our heads (called a “schema” or, plural, “schemata”) and how we rely on it when we are doing the job we call thinking (academics call it “cognition”) to help us quickly sort through the barrage of information that comes at us every day.
Dimaggio says that these schemata shape our thinking, but then he makes the point that we are not helpless in the face of these schemata-implanting forces. Dimaggio says, “Research on social cognition enhances our understanding of how culture constrains [our thinking] but does not support theories that depict culture as overwhelmingly constraining.” [Emphasis by Nygaard]
The schemata that operate in all of our heads operate mostly unconsciously, which is probably a good thing in the sense that we don’t want to have to figure out the logical structure of our thoughts every time we think something! So, for any given individual, much of the day-to-day thinking is, in a sense, “automatic,” relying on a mental schema to organize his/her thoughts.
Here’s a very dense paragraph, which I’ll translate into plain English, sentence by sentence:
“Schemata are also mechanisms that simplify cognition.” Nygaard Translation (NT): When we take in new information, it’s much simpler to fit it into our pre-existing ideas about the world (our schemata) than it is to actually reflect on it.
“Highly schematic cognition is the realm of institutionalized culture, of typification, of the habitus, of the cognitive shortcuts that promote efficiency at the expense of synoptic accuracy.” NT: By “efficiency,” they mean how quickly and easily we can “sum it all up,” or get the gist of something, even if our summary is wrong. That wrong summary is the “synoptic inaccuracy” that is lost in the search for efficiency. In this culture we take a lot of mental shortcuts, so we get lost a lot.
“Much cognitive research demonstrates that ‘schematic material dominates other material in accurate recall, in intruded recall, in recognition confidence, in recall clustering and in resistance to disconfirmation….’” NT: That phrase—“resistance to disconfirmation”—is heard by us regular people as “My mind is already made up; don’t bother me with the facts!”
“Schemata also facilitate inaccurate recall when the information is schema consistent.” NT: When we run across “facts” that fit with ideas already stored in our brains, it becomes easy, if not necessary, to simply forget any facts that don’t fit in our schema, or to “remember” facts that we never actually heard.
So, for example, we just “know” that someone is “us” and someone else is “them”, for example. Or, we know that this is safe and that is a threat. But some of the thoughts that are given to us by our culture are unwanted, and actually may run counter to our values. Here’s Dimaggio again:
“In contrast to automatic thought, psychologists note a quite different form of cognition, which is ‘explicit, verbalized, slow, and deliberate.’ When sufficiently motivated, people can override programmed modes of thought to think critically and reflexively.”
It is in pursuit of this very dynamic that I continue to produce Nygaard Notes: To help readers—and myself—override our culturally-imposed schemata! But, says Dimaggio, “Such overrides are necessarily rare because deliberation is so inefficient in its rejection of the shortcuts that automatic cognition offers. Consequently, the key question is why people are ever deliberative.”
Dimaggio suggests three conditions that, when present, might lead people to break from the cognitive norms and think critically. And they are 1. Attention; 2. Motivation, and; 3. Schema Failure. Here’s a little bit of what he says about each one:
Attention “Psychological research suggests that people shift into deliberative modes of thought relatively easily when their attention is attracted to a problem.” We’ve all heard someone say, when confronted with an unexpected problem, “Gee, I’ve never thought about it.” What they are really saying is that they have always relied on automatic thought and have not really reflected on the matter at hand. Dimaggio says that, when we become interested in things that we’ve never thought about, it’s “relatively easy” to engage in critical thinking. (This is one reason I write this newsletter you’re reading.)
Motivation “People may also shift from automatic to deliberative cognition when they are strongly motivated to do so by dissatisfaction with the status quo or by the moral salience of a particular issue. For example, although racist schemata are accessible to most white Americans, whites can override such schemata to some extent through awareness and reflexivity.” Hanging out with, and thinking together with, people who share one’s values and are committed to making things better is a great way to create the conditions in which we can think more effectively.
Schema Failure “Finally, people shift to more deliberative modes of processing when existing schemata fail to account adequately for new stimuli. Research on the psychology of intergroup relations suggests that people in task groups initially code others on the basis of stereotypes but shift to more deliberate evaluations when faced with very strong inconsistent evidence.” In other words, when we come across something that “just doesn’t make sense,” it might occur to us that the problem may be in our own heads—where our inadequate schema resides—and we just might realize that we may need to think in some new ways.
Why Nygaard Notes Is Odd
I quoted Paul Dimaggio above, who remarks that “In contrast to automatic thought, psychologists note a quite different form of cognition, which is ‘explicit, verbalized, slow, and deliberate.’”
And there you have Nygaard Notes: Explicit, Verbalized, Slow, and Deliberate. Nygaard Notes comes out a couple of times a month (Deliberate), it’s composed of essays that introduce new ideas which are supported by lots of research (Explicit), it’s all text with no graphics (Verbalized), and the essays are long and take a while to digest (Slow).
Now consider that almost everything that you find in the world of Internet news—especially in the social media news stream—is the opposite of the things on the above list. I have been told by numerous web designers and Internet dwellers that Nygaard Notes will not be appealing to people in the digital universe, and here’s why: Far from being Explicit, Verbalized, Slow, and Deliberate, like Nygaard Notes, news in Cyberspace is supposed to be Graphic, Fast, and Impulsive. The short, fast photos, memes and videos that increasingly dominate the news (and not only online news) rely on automatic thought. As Internet algorithms increasingly dictate what we think about, they are also shaping how we think. Quicker, more graphic, more inductive, and thus more reliant on existing schemata than the kind of thinking that Nygaard Notes has been promoting for the past 19 years.
It is my belief that no one teaches another, and no one is self taught. As Nygaard Notes moves into its 20th year, you can rest assured that I will continue to feature thinking that is Explicit, Verbalized, Slow, and Deliberate. I won’t be “teaching” you anything. I’ll be inviting you to join with me as we attempt to travel a path of Liberation.