In my day job, I’m immersed in a project requiring input from, output by, and cooperation between a diverse assortment of departments, teams and individuals. The percentage of them that I can count on to do their best work in a collaborative mindset is definitely in the high 90s, so you would think that the project would proceed fairly smoothly. But people are people, we each have our unique experience and lens through which we see the world, so frequently we have to stop and check to make sure we’re speaking the same language.
Usually, we’re able to repair the disconnect in fairly short order, in part because I work with a lot of very smart and reasonable people and also in part, because none of us has the luxury of a lot or spare time we can spend chasing rabbits down holes. Still, even with this group of people, misunderstandings can arise, tempers flare and we sometimes waste time and energy rebuilding relationships. It happens.
So it should come as no surprise that in dealing with a population of the general public, unfiltered by the effect of dedication to a specific mission, not everyone is always reading from the same sheet of music.
The Internet was created specifically to provide effective communication over long distances in real- or near real-time. Depending on what you read and who you believe, the first example of an Internet-like network took place at MIT, UCLA, Stanford or government labs, in 1959 or 1960, or maybe it was 1962 and was the brainchild of Kleinrock or Roberts or, or…(NOT Gore). But wherever it was created or by whom, it has turned out to be a great boon in some ways and an unmitigated disaster in others.
Folks my age or thereabouts are the last generation that will remember living our day to day lives without the Internet or anything like it. The knowledge base I built during my formative years came mostly from books. We learned early on to use card catalogues and the Dewey Decimal System. We had a set of encyclopedias in our front room and each year I was assigned the responsibility of updating the information, using the reference tabs mailed to us by the good people of World Book.
Once a year.
It seems strange now to recall that in order to conduct research on just about anything required at least one trip to the library, hoping against hope that you’d get there before a more motivated kid from your class who was working on the same assignment got there and checked out the books you needed. And even if you got the hoped-for tomes your learning would unavoidably be shaped by the particular point of view of the author and authors’ points of view were skewed more often than not. Accordingly, we learned from histories that ignored the contributions of minorities and women, that told us more than we cared to know about Paris and Rome but nothing about the Great City of Zimbabwe or the Chinese dynasties.
From books I learned a great deal about how civilizations were formed over time. That is, civilizations based in Europe. We learned a lot about George Washington and Junipero Serrra (sanitized version, that is) but almost nothing about the Mandan or Lakota tribes or the Mexicans or Athapascans.
With the advent of the Internet, we had the opportunity to level the playing field, to share the knowledge and experience and cultures and points of view of the whole world and not just those of the currently ascendant. It has done that but the very nature of the openness of the Internet, the fact that anyone can post anything means that, well, anyone can post anything. The unintended consequence of leveling the playing field is that it has truly been leveled. The collected works of brilliant scholars and deep thinkers share equal billing with the musings of the ignorant and uncaring.
It wouldn’t be so bad if we could count on the unworthy to self-identify through their tortured grammar or faulty logic. But many of the people whose contributions are less than dependable are well meaning and those whose motives are less cordial frequently take pains to seem knowledgeable and reasonable. And of course, the reader too often has no good way of judging the veracity of the ‘information’ they encounter.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about this problem, especially since our recent electoral disaster. I’m not sure how we reverse it, how we as a society can use the Internet as a boon rather than the cultural quagmire it is quickly becoming. After all, the Internet is just a tool that carries no moral weight in and of itself. A hammer can be used to build or to tear down. Choice is revealed by the hand that wields it.
We can’t rely on the level of positive intent that I enjoy in my day job. I don’t know that it’s even possible to keep ‘bad’ content off the Internet and not convinced we should try, given our inability to predict unintended consequences. But we should try to sort what we see there. Perhaps we could start by taking the time and effort we currently spend on ‘teaching to tests’ and instead teaching our kids (and ourselves, for that matter) to be smart and discerning consumers of content.
Seems to me, that would be a start.