By Chris Phoenix Clarke
In an age where we are bombarded with information from every angle, is it any wonder that a generation of people are becoming unable to tell the difference between what is the truth and what isn’t?
The Internet – for all its wealth of free and accessible information – is certainly a double-edged sword. Whilst Google and the like have transformed our lives on a scale none could have envisaged, this has come at a cost. A hefty price tag has been slapped on the box and a line of small print hidden amongst the text; a contract of soul-selling proportions drawn-up unknowingly between humans and a ubiquitous digital entity. Slowly but surely several billion of us are becoming more stupid, whilst, somewhat ironically, having access to knowledge more vast than we could ever have dreamed of.
It’s the Great Library of Alexandria contained within our living rooms and in our pockets, but infinitely more extensive.
And yet the population lacks mental clarity. We have lost the ability to think for ourselves. For amongst the many petabytes and exabytes of the useful information lies countless stores of the bad: the inaccuracies, the misinformation, the lies, the cons, the agendas and propaganda, the corrupt and the just-plain-wrong. The same bad information previously available in many newspapers and television shows except, in this instance, super-sized and now available at the click of a finger, for free, at all hours of the day and night and with lightning-quick efficiency. The potential exposure of young minds to this kind of data is now many times greater in magnitude than ever before in history.
“The Great Library of Alexandria contained within our living rooms and in our pockets, but infinitely more extensive”
Those of us born in the 80s or before might recall accumulating knowledge about the world from books, dictionaries, encyclopaedias and videos, before becoming the first real wave of people to experience the Internet in their youth. Anyone born in the 90s or later would consider the Internet just as much a permanent tool of education as any other – perhaps regarded as the only way in which to access information in some cases.
And herein lies the problem: a generation of people have never had a standard of good information; they’ve not been shown the difference between accurate and inaccurate, or how to recognise the bad. Furthermore, because anyone can post and share almost anything on the Web, articles spring up looking like genuine news stories but might convey biased or exaggerated information; and because they look like the real thing, people are inclined to believe what they’re reading at first glance and without a moment’s hesitation, so the bad information is subsequently transferred on and spreads like a disease.
In olden times it used to be a case of ‘cutting through the crap’ and being able to tell if you were being conned, lied to, or ‘taken for a ride’. Being gullible was held with derision – on a par with stupidity or exhibiting the traits of an imbecile. It was considered as something to ridicule; something one would have to improve upon if one was to succeed in this world. And the solution? To stop being so gullible and start questioning the authenticity and reliability of information.
And so it was, broadly speaking, for millennia.
Of course there were the songs, the tales, the legends and myths that came with events being recounted at court and castle, by way of messenger and the common forums, the pub and tavern, brothels and ships and on the battleground; and it was often the case that Chinese whisperers and fanciful storytellers would fantastically fabricate all manner of fables and folklore and the truth – had it even happened in the first place – would be diluted.
The popularisation of the printing press in Germany in the 15th century ushered in a new era of mass communication and yielded – along with the Renaissance – a time of vast intellectual and creative enlightenment and self-awareness. Literacy spread like wildfire and the proliferation of great thinkers, artists and scientists is unparalleled before or since.
Propaganda reared its ugly head a few centuries later, in particular in colonial India in the 19th century. The First and Second World Wars and the Cold War took it one step further and significantly elevated the effectiveness of the media to manipulate the truth to sway public opinion toward political favour. The ulterior motives at play, whilst concealed to some, had many questioning the validity of what they were hearing and created what was perhaps the first generation of modern-day conspiracy theorists and free-thinkers since the Renaissance.
Cue the arrival of the 1990s and global networking and the inauguration of the World Wide Web. Suddenly, in just a few years, the world was abound with You Tube, memes, blogs, forums, instant-chat rooms, web pages and social media, all bursting with information for the taking. And just like the Bubonic devastation that ravaged Europe and Asia due to the Black Death in the 14th century, an infection set in and spread to every corner of the cyber-continent – the bad information contagion caught and passed on by endless chains of online interactions that continue to this day, only inexorably more severe.
It was an inevitable occurrence of such an extreme explosion of connectivity, akin to the world existing one minute as sparse isolated villages and the next increasing to the size of modern-day China.
And the vaccine for this digital plague? Critical thinking.
Perhaps this is being a little unfair. Global connectivity is a truly wonderful utility that has revolutionised the way society operates. Aside from the obvious benefits the Internet has to offer – such as e-commerce, e-mails, downloads etc. – it is also a research tool and a platform for information to propagate, making it a delicate but colossal store of [mostly] unrestricted data. The problem of course being that anybody can share anything online – hence the information pandemic and its spread of stupidity.
“With the truth drowned in a sea of irrelevance, we’re becoming a trivial culture, more concerned with vacuous ‘selfies’, celebrity ‘tweets’ and Facebook gossip.”
Critical thinking and reasoning are skills developed in academia but not often taught in schools. It’s the ability to question and to sift quickly through the gravel to find the gold, so to speak, and to scrutinise evidence. It’s the act of not being gullible and believing everything you’re told. And how do you ‘cut through the crap’ and avoid being ‘taken for a ride’? Question everything. Question authority. Check the evidence. Check the sources of information. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Check for objectiveness and bias. Research everything. The provenance, origin or author, the authenticity, the relevance and clarity… all valuable areas for finding and digging up the useless weeds of the World Wide Web.
Just a couple of minutes scrutiny or research will separate the factual from the fabricated, the balanced from the bulls**t and the reliable from the rubbish.
Like something from Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World, or its totalitarian literary opposite number – George Orwell’s 1984 – the world is seemingly in the infantile stages of a kind of population mind control. Like Orwell’s oppressive and restrictive filtering of knowledge and history by The Party, we see likenesses today: the banning of Google, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress – amongst many others – in China, and You Tube, Twitter and Soundcloud – to name but a few – in Turkey.
In the U.S. and parts of Europe, however, we see alarming similarities to the antithetical future World State portrayed by Huxley, where mass distribution of entertainment is encouraged in an attempt to pacify the people – diverting their attention away from political issues. With the truth drowned in a sea of irrelevance, we too are becoming a trivial culture, more concerned with vacuous ‘selfies’, celebrity ‘tweets’ and Facebook gossip.
“For every time this check is performed, the plague of bad information infects one less person and the pandemic is, very gradually at least, reduced”
A more accurate comparison might be made with Lee Bradbury’s 1954 dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 which focuses on the burning of all books, state-based censorship and the general dumbing-down, apathy and short attention-spans of the population. While not quite as severe as Bradbury’s Firemen that are tasked with hunting down books and putting them to the flame-thrower, today’s society somewhat neglects reading books in favour of smartphone apps and social media.
So the next time you see a sensationalist news headline, a ‘factual’ meme, a pseudo-scientific article, a You Tube ‘expert’ – just question it. Consider its validity. For every time this check is performed, the plague of bad information infects one less person and the pandemic is, very gradually at least, reduced. You could even, if you’re feeling really adventurous, pick up a good book – for there are many – and try losing yourself in imagination instead of traipsing through the trivial, but relentless vomit of the News Feed.
The world is a beautiful, enthralling place, unique – as far as we can tell – in the Universe. To miss out on what it has to offer is tantamount to heresy. Let us use the incredible technological wonder at our fingertips to enter a new era of enlightenment and knowledge – a new renaissance if you will – but in our lifetimes, in the 21st century.
By Chris Phoenix Clarke