They're not popular because of our materialism. That simply explains the content. We love to watch them and project onto them our 21st century form of information hoarding neuroses.
We are information hoarders. Our brains, and phones, and computers are stuffed with data. We have too much. We are drowning. Shows like Hoarders resonate with us because we are just as swamped as these people:
The people on this show need intervention, behavioral therapy, and a deep cleaning to simplify their possessions.
We need that, too. In fact, it's a critical skill we should be teaching our students.
But there's a big difference between "stuff" hoarding and information hoarding. The former won't help you earn a degree or get you a job. The latter might. The former, aside from the thrill of what Walt Whitman called "the mania of owning things," has no long-term pay-off (unless you're collecting Van Gogh's or something). The latter, if put to good use, can help you do great things.
I guess what I'm saying is, we'd all be better off going cold turkey on "stuff." However, we might eventually languish without information.
George Siemens, I think, gets it just right. His 2005 paper "Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age," poses a new theory of learning that takes our present predicament (or, you could say, opportunity) into consideration. The information just keeps on coming. How are we to manage it? Should we focus on learning information when that same information may expire in a few months? How can we best ride the infinite flow of information to improve our thinking? This would be an improvement over drowning.
Siemens' conclusion poses the teaching of a kind of meta-knowledge. Students should be learning how to establish vital connections with others and to put the machine to good use. The critical and innovative use of systems of information is more fundamental than the information itself:
The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized. The field of education has been slow to recognize both the impact of new learning tools and the environmental changes in what it means to learn. Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.
These two paragraphs will inform the next syllabus I write. I think they present a way forward, and one that is rooted in our current catastrophe. Here I'm using "catastrophe" as cultural historian William Irwin Thompson does in his book Coming into Being:
"Catastrophe" is a word that English has taken from Greek; it means "to turn over." When we turn over material in a compost heap, we create a castrophe for the anaerobic bacteria in the rotting garbage as we suddenly flood them with oxygen and sunlight.