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Tom Alderman

Tom Alderman

Posted April 23, 2009 | 03:28 PM (EST)

The Internet Is Absolute Democracy -- Be Very Afraid!


The Internet is the ultimate 21st Century Jeffersonian dream come true: an informed public with unlimited information making knowledgeable choices in a connected, 24/7, placeless society where we take what we want, when we want, on demand. So, why does the dream look more like a nightmare when 'General Motors' and 'bankruptcy' are used in the same sentence, when red state and blue state minds argue whether global warming and evolution are real, and a Texas governor talks about secession. What happened? Like Guttenberg's printing press, the Internet has created radically new opportunities and systems that have put us at the beginning of a seismic cultural shift -- and yet, something is terribly wrong.

If you are Bob Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, you are very concerned about the Internet and the negative effects it's having on our society. "Yes, the Internet is an extraordinary wealth of information and a radical cultural shift," says the 50 year-old professor. He's concerned about the Internet's corrosive impact on "the precarious nature of authority. It's potentially dangerous. It's a complete democratization of information where unverified knowledge is often the result of our own emotional state," he says. "Yes, we are well connected, if connected means having huge contact lists, tons of Facebook and Twitter pals, we certainly are well connected as never before in history." But, here's the irony of the Internet's unintended consequence he fears: "Our youth is growing up in a fragmented culture. We are not all feeding from the same cultural trough, a shared body of characters and stories that bonds us all together with common beliefs, goals and systems. Why can't we agree on anything?" asks Thompson. "We are fragmented like Los Angeles -- multiple communities in search of a center. Instead, we are linked together from enclosed cars and computer screens. We run the risk of having no sense of real authority. The result is anarchy." Okay, this is not what Jefferson had in mind.

No Luddite boomer, Bob Thompson was an early tech adopter, getting his first computer in 1984, a Datafox, he remembers fondly. Raised in Chicago's western suburbs, and a product of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University's graduate school, Thompson is a heavy Internet user and culturally curious explorer who, at one point, spent two hours a day for 30 months watching YouTube. The result: "It's like a garage sale, 99 percent is absolute garbage." And for pre-Interneters like himself, "the current Twitter boom is totally baffling -- reduced Haiku for idiots."

Thompson's main point is that, while the Internet looks like a connector, it is developing into a national disconnector. He maintains "Parents and schools used to be the source of information. Now it's the Internet." We're evolving into a Wikipedia world relying on user-generated information. Thompson continues, "It's like having user-generated surgery." Not what you ever want.

Thompson makes a compelling case. We do have unprecedented, unlimited and unverified information at our finger tips anytime we want. But isn't it more an illusion of knowledge based on excessive quantity, not quality?

We live in an expanding universe of unfiltered thought and information that results in vertical silos of public discourse with no horizontal connections between them. There are millions of monologues without any dialogue. It's pure democracy from a nation founded as a representative republic. In other words, chaos. Not good.

So, what's the antidote to this potentially Web-propelled chaos? There are many who will instinctively want tighter controls over the Internet, creating central order where none exists -- like China now tries, like all authoritarians try when they lose control over the populous. Very hard seeing how that works when the World Wide Web's very foundations are universal access and distribution of information and thought.

The answer lies with us, dear reader, the end users of this tsunamic information flow. It's about critical thinking, the ability to hear, see or read a story and ask -- what's the context, who's saying what, is the source reliable, what might be missing? What's the real who, what, how, when and why of the thing.

Critical thinking is currently not a priority in our education system even though it's the first line of defense and growth for any open society. It's the ability to seek the difference between causal and correlative facts. For instance, ice-cream consumption rises as the crime rate goes up in Chicago. Quite True. But is crime the cause of increased ice-cream sales, or do crime and ice-cream both rise only because it's summertime in Chicago? Got to know the difference to survive and thrive.

Critical thinking taught in our schools would make Thomas Jefferson very happy -- an informed public making knowledgeable choices no matter how unfiltered the flow of limitless information. It certainly helps next time you hear Obama is a Muslim, you get AIDS from shaking hands, or someone has weapons of mass destruction.