The internet and technology associated with it have opened access to quantities of information unparalleled in human history. No emperor of Rome, monarch of the British Empire or ruler of any other empire has ever been able to acquire information the way anyone with a computer can today.
A friend wants to buy a garden tractor. He is able to research many different brands, compare quality and durability within brands of each manufacturer and among the various brands available on the market. Having selected a few for further research, he accesses several blogs and forums to learn about the experiences of users of each and gets warning about what to avoid. Then, trailer behind his van, he can pick up the best buy he has made by playing each seller against the others.
Not long ago I was contacted by a college student from Australia as a source for material she was researching on a topic on which I have expertise. Others, strangers every one and representing six different continents, have contacted me for information and advice about problems they have experienced. To them, I am accessible due to the internet.
However, this unprecedented access to information by millions of people comes at a cost. That cost is time, as a researcher must wade through mountains of information that is more advertising and propaganda than fact, and that takes time. Google can only point to sources, not to the most factual and succinct sources.
Children use the internet to learn about all sorts of topics. The media warn us about the dangers of pornography and adult web sites for kids. And they caution parents to monitor the activity of their children on social sites like Facebook.
But the media can’t help children or parents to distinguish between factual information and political propaganda, religious come-ons, sites that outright lie about the products they sell, warranties on products they sell that aren’t worth the paper they could be (but aren’t) printed on, or “research” that could better be described as personal hobby than oriented to scientific method.
In short, the internet is the greatest source of trash information in human history.
Yet children and adults read this stuff. If it’s well written, readers tend to become believers. Form, rather than factual substance, gives it street cred.
As television viewership declines, reading of material on web sites increases dramatically. This contributes to what retired Canadian educator Jim World calls intellectual obesity. Kids and adults can have heads crammed full of misinformation, trivia that may be attractive but serves them no good purpose (think the style and content of supermarket tabloids) and opinions-turned-beliefs on topics about which they have very limited verifiable facts.
In general, schools don’t teach how to distinguish between facts, lies and propaganda, whether on the internet or on television. A small part of one course I took years ago focussed on political spin, editorialized news sources and propaganda. It may have been the best time I ever spent in school. Most people never get that experience, so they become prey for the wolves of the internet. Internet wolves know their sociology.
Humans being subject to human nature, the more they know, the more they want to tell others. Rumour and unsubstantiated fact has always been a part of human dialogue. But it could usually be distinguished as rumour and ignored or treated accordingly.
Today we have kids and adults who believe the most outrageous things because they read it on the internet. In North America, over half of all adults use the internet as their primary source for news and information. With a few rare exceptions, most of it is not subjected to scrutiny the way newspaper and television news reports are.
If US President George W. Bush could use newspapers, radio and television to spread lies about weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist in Iraq, then use the lies to start a war, what could happen when the unfiltered internet is used to brainwash people in every country of the world about the lies or misinformation its sources want to spread?
Don’t call it information diarrhea if the term offends you. But let’s not pretend that the internet is a source of verifiable facts. It’s not. Most web sites are supported by companies or organizations with something (product or idea) to sell or individuals who want their ill-considered and often poorly formulated thoughts to be recorded for posterity.
Do we need more laws to protect us? No. The present plethora of unenforced and unenforceable laws on the books now prove that method doesn’t work. More laws just make the bad guys get smarter to avert and avoid them.
The only way to protect people from misinformation and religious or political propaganda on a global scale is to teach children how to identify fact from fiction, truth from propaganda, sham from gem. That means changing part of the curriculum in high schools.
The other day I discussed with a friend the twice in my life that I have used skills I learned from two years of trigonometry in high school. I struggle today to comprehend how the average person could use calculus in their lives when they can’t tell truth from lie, don’t know how to think for themselves and believe everything that is carefully presented as if fact by a politician.
Being able to tell fact and truth from what is not is an essential life skill. If it’s not taught in schools, most people will not learn it. They will be potential victims waiting to be victimized. This has always been true, but never more important than in this 21st century.
This world does not need any more victims or people who are too stupid to distinguish between truth and lies. We need to teach every child.
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to make their children savvy about the ways of the world that could make them victims if they can’t protect themselves.
Learn more at http://billallin.com