Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Think for yourself, starring the Internet and you!

I try to be a little wary of the idea that progress is always good; that human history is a parade of advances and improvements. Really, some innovations are good and some are not so good.

When it comes to the Internet though, I just can't contain my optimism!!!

My love song for the Internet goes a little like this:

Tyranny thrives on ignorance; so do intolerance and hate and the violence they inspire. The antidote is education, and the Internet can distribute a good dose of it.

Some will argue that the Internet is as good at spreading ignorance as it is at fighting ignorance since people can (and do) post tons of things that are false and wrong. Even wikipedia is riddled with errors. Or if it isn't I've just posted a false statement myself right here. ;^)

But I think that the Internet is a huge boon to educating masses of ordinary people for two main reasons:

1. The Internet gives people access to a wide range of perspectives from outside their own social/comfort zone that they would not have access to otherwise.

2. The Internet trains people to think critically for themselves.

And as a bonus, we have #3: It's so much fun that you end up learning things without even trying to.

Why do I think the Internet encourages people to think for themselves?

Think about how mass media works. Whether it's television, radio, books, newspapers, magazines, etc., you are encouraged to absorb. Sure you might analyze the information you've absorbed, but there's no real motivation to do so. Mass media divides the population into the producers of knowledge and the consumers of it, and never the twain shall meet.

Traditional media encourages the belief that "if it's in print, it's true," or alternately "Accurate unbiased news comes from a few established sources and everything else is the wacky fringe." It costs money to produce and distribute books, TV programs, etc., so media companies typically have an interest in building a reputation for being accurate and unbiased in order to build an audience. That's a good thing, but it means that if you question every newscast -- complaining about how much they aren't telling you -- the average person will lump you in the same category with crackpot conspiracy theorists.

Really it's better to keep in mind that there's an ocean of stories out there that aren't covered by the trickle of the standard media stream. Traditional news sources deserve your respect inasmuch as they earn it with careful, thorough reporting. But even when reading the big stories from reputable sources, it's beneficial to see multiple perspectives side-by-side (as you get in response to a search query or see in the comments of a blog entry). It forces you to assess for yourself who is the most credible and whose arguments make the most sense. It trains you pick up on hints of bias in even largely unbiased sources.

What's more, if you participate in blogs and forums, you get immediate positive feedback for coming up with original, intelligent, and insightful comments. You also get immediate positive feedback for thinking your ideas through carefully so you can express them clearly and concisely. Rambling or regurgitating an undigested party line will get your comments ignored. The result is daily exercise for your critical thinking skills.

Some people only like to frequent sites that cater to their own point of view. This encourages groupthink if the site succeeds in suppressing other viewpoints. However, on the Internet you're really never more than a click or two away from an opposing view, and many are tempted to make those few stray clicks. Additionally, even sites that cater to one viewpoint typically allow opposing comments: as a close-at-hand example, look at how the members of the Bloggernacle and of Outer Blogness cross-post on each other's blogs.

On the Internet, you're constantly presented with unfamiliar viewpoints even if you're not actively looking for them. Here's a typical example taken from my everyday blog reading. The permabloggers -- all with a similar background to each other -- were discussing violence in the Middle East with an understandable American "it's far away" attitude when they were confronted by someone with personal friends in the middle East urging them to remember that the "collateral damage" civilians are people too.

In blog-and-forum-space, you're encouraged to respond to unfamiliar viewpoints. That requires you to think about them and about your own position.

Now you might be saying "Chanson, you crazy optimist you -- most people are not discussing serious issues or current events at all online: they're exchanging pokemons and celebrity gossip!!!"

I contend that even reading and posting nothing but fluff to the Internet trains people to broaden their horizons.

Regardless of what everyone says about the deplorable spelling, grammar, and punctuation on the Internet, regular exercise at reading and writing improves one's composition skills.

More importantly -- even if your activities on the Internet are purely social -- you will almost certainly be socializing with people outside your usual real-life social boundaries. By that I mean you'll make friends people who are different from you in one or more of the following ways: economic class, education level, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, age, and other similar social barriers that make it unlikely you would have met your Internet friends in real life. And no matter how open and tolerant you are intellectually, it is nearly impossible to learn deep down that those outside your familiar group are just ordinary people like you unless you actually meet them. There's no substitute for it -- it's the true antidote for bigotry.

I'll bet your "think for yourself" reflex is kicking in right now. You disagree with me? Then you're planning your insightful objection in your mind, working out just the right way to phrase it. Then you'll post it and everyone can decide what they think of your position.

If you were reading this in a magazine, that wouldn't be the case.


C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. I won't be able to moderate comments for a few days, so everyone please play nice!!! Thanks!!!

Rebecca said...

Whatever. I TOTALLY ramble on my blog, and you still comment nice things on it. Feedback for insightful comments MY ASS.

Okay, I DO really love the internet. Whatever I want to know, I just google it (I also love that "google" has become a verb). What did people DO before the internet? I seriously don't know. Sure, libraries are great, but you can't just type in a phrase and find whatever you need (unless it's an online library, but then we're back to the whole "the internet rocks, what did people do before" thing). Virtually ALL the research for my papers in college was done online (through online libraries and other "scholarly" type places - but still, online!).

Also, today I learned that the Coriolis effect - the force caused by the Earth's rotation that makes water in the northern hemisphere swirl the opposite direction from that in the southern hemisphere - does not, in fact, affect the way toilets flush and sinks drain. It's mainly seen in the direction of tropical storms.

The internet is the Best Thing Ever. Also, should I have used 'effect' at the end of that last paragraph? Shoot - sometimes I CANNOT figure out which to use. Hey, I'll google it!

Anonymous said...

CL, I share your passion and so totally agree with the power of the internet to destroy bigotry. Yeah, it can magnify it too, but your point that the overall nature of the internet as promoter of critical thought and almost random experiences with alternate views ... this is undeniable.

Hey, and thanks for linking to one of my Purim posts as an example. It made me wish I was still posting there. Mike Kessler brought an irrefutable human reality to that discussion. And I loved Equality's quote of Bob Dylan.

As long as corporate interests fail in their endeavor to tame the internet (and by the nature of the internet I think there's a fighting chance) I think this human network will be the catalyst for the next step in human evolution.

Anonymous said...

...not to mention that people can type much faster than they used to! At least I can from all the email/IM/etc. I'm guessing I'm around 60 wpm at the moment, although with lots of mistakes.

The only downside I can come up with is when blatantly false information is posted with no verification. For example, I could say that I think that eating tomatoes are bad for your health. Yet there could be decades of research on the health benefits of tomatoes by reputable sources. Someone finds my opinion and takes me seriously. Granted, it calls into question of what we know and how we know it, and what is really a reputable source.

I completely agree with you though - the access of all that information IS really amazing. Just this week, I heard about Steve Irwin's death - I had no idea what a sting ray was. I quickly went to wikipedia and a minute later, I had a good idea. In the past, I would have had to walk or drive to the library, search a card catalog for a book that might be checked out!

Ah the internet. Who knew back in 1991 that it would be so far-reaching.

Alon Levy said...

One of the advantages of the Internet is that it seems to vastly reduce the attention span needed for learning. The level of discipline you need to read books, especially when you have to walk to the library and get them, is far higher than the level you need to read the information on Wikipedia. Obviously Wikipedia has less depth, but it gives you the basics at least as well as textbooks and survey articles do, and other online sources can help you a lot with deciding which books are worth reading.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you: I adore the internet, for reasons you list and more.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

It turns out that in the olden days (yep I remember 'em ;^) ) they had these things called "encyclopedias." Like you, I much prefer google.

Hey Watt!!!


I liked Mike Kessler's comments too. So you're not posting on Purim anymore? That's too bad.

Hey Rachel!!!

It's true that lots of very false information can be dressed up to look true on the Internet. But as you say, the fact that an opposing view is right there forces you to think about what makes a reputable source.

Hey Alon!!!

Very good point about how the Internet is full of snippets of information that don't require much initiative, effort, or attention. Along those lines, it's very easy to be reading along on a relatively fluffy forum just for light entertainment, then have your interest piqued by an unfamiliar topic and from there follow a link to some more serious information on the subject.

Thanks Holly!!!