Trivia vs. Signia: A New Word for the English Language
We live in what has come to be called the “Information Age.” Often though, we don’t stop to think about the purpose and quality of the information that surrounds us in abundance. Not all information is equal though, and it’s time for the English language to have a word that can help elevate significant information.
Information has always been important to human understanding, action and progress. But we now live in an Information Age in part because the long trajectory of human history charts the growing importance of information as societies become more complex, requiring more accumulated knowledge to sustain them. Imagine, for example, the accumulated knowledge early human hunter-gatherers might have depended on to gather enough food to live versus that required to operate modern, international food systems moving massive amounts of food safely and efficiently from farm to factory to table.
We also live in an Information Age because of the advent of the computer and internet, and the movement these technologies have helped spur toward jobs that involve the production and processing of information and symbols. Journalists, writers, scientists, artists, software developers, engineers, consultants, marketers, producers, lawyers and professors are among those who form part of this growing class of what observers like Robert Reich (1992) and Richard Florida (2003) call the “symbolic-analyst” or “creative” class.
Observers of this “creative class” don’t typically parse the information this class produces, but it ranges widely from research on cancer or international relations, to gossip about who is dating whom in Hollywood. Moreover, the creative class is pumping out more and more information as it grows and as consumers and critics implicitly or explicitly demand that they be prolific and always current. This state of affairs has created what sociologist Todd Gitlin has aptly called a “media torrent” (2007), an ever growing quantity and diversity of information that is hard to absorb, let alone digest properly.
Most consumers are not in the habit of parsing trivial from significant information in the torrent, but at least some readily recognize that a lot of the information produced is relatively trivial, whether it is about what celebrities are wearing or who they are dating, the latest entertainment releases or plot developments in popular TV shows, the twists and turns of sport seasons, or else.
Of course, more significant knowledge is always available in the Information Age – via news articles and TV shows that report on economic and political developments local to global, radio shows and infographics that help make sense of current issues, science magazines that explore nature, books that nourish our imagination or illuminate human behavior, TV history documentaries that help us better understand our past, present and future, etc. Some of these occasionally garner significant public attention, but they generally do not compete with the glitter and glitz of more trivial, fast-moving entertainment.
I love entertainment. Given two TV screens, one showing who is dating whom in Hollywood, the other showing experts discussing the state of the economy or a world disease pandemic, my eyes will gravitate to the former. Anyone in the business of making money knows this about me and most other human beings. That is why the preponderance of information in the Information Age is more trivial than significant, and why people often know more about the former than the latter. Entertaining information will always attract people and thus thrive as long as there are people and there are businesses that make money from entertainment. But the balance of trivial vs. significant information in our environments and in our minds need not be so lop-sided. We can have an Information Age that nurtures more informed citizenship and less distracted consumerism.
The first step is to recognize the difference between trivial and significant information. Curiously, but perhaps understandably, the English language has the word “trivia” to denote insignificant information, but no contrasting word for significant information. In developing Learning Life I mean to introduce not just a new approach to public education, but also a new word to the English language. “Signia” means significant information, and it purposefully plays on the look and sound of the word “trivia.”
In introducing signia I am not arguing that all information is either trivial or “signial,” but rather that there exists a continuum from the most trivial to the most signial information. What is more or less trivial or signial information is indeed up for debate, and I introduce signia in no small part in order to encourage such debate. Nonetheless, I think most people can agree that there is a difference between knowing about who is dating whom in Hollywood versus knowing about the state of our economy, government or environment, or about who’s winning or losing in sports versus where and how disease is transmitted. Modern democratic societies have a present and long-term interest in recognizing and elevating signia over trivia to nurture more informed and engaged citizens.
The second step toward a signial Information Age is to think and talk about how we can promote signia, making it a larger part of more people’s lives. Learning Life offers one approach – spreading signia on everyday surfaces, like napkins, placemats, cup sleeves and posters, and connecting those surfaces to further learning online – but it’s by no means the only approach. So I invite everyone, not just the “creative class” but all citizens of the world who care about making our world a better place, to ponder and pursue these two questions:
What do you consider trivial, and signial? And, how can we innovate to spread signia more widely?
Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life
Florida, Richard. 2003. The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.
Gitlin, Todd. 2007. Media Unlimited, rev. ed. New York: Henry Holt & Company.
Reich, Robert. 1992. The Work of Nations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.