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The Age of the Expert

Where would we be without the Internet? This Network of networks, the Internet has empowered mankind with infinite information, an avenue for democracy and a foundation for building relationships across geographical barriers. It has started revolutions and graciously given you the name of the song stuck in your head all day.

A cursory glance through the history of technological development will notice that the Internet wasn’t the only leap forward that had titanic impacts on how we live. The wheel and automobile helped us get from A to B in much shorter time, while the alphabet and book were game changers in how common man viewed language and the accessibility of knowledge. In a similar way, the Internet’s advance has empowered people to learn more and more, because it is so easy to find information. Don’t know the names of Jupiter’s moons? Google it. Nobody got time for the library.

Who’s the boss?

Just like the hammer in the shed, we believe that the Internet is just another tool we harness for our benefit. We assume that we are masters of self and are immune to any sort of external trickery, especially by machines. But as the foremost philosopher of communication theory, Marshall McLuhan, suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They do supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. In words for today –  the Internet is changing our brains. It is naive to think otherwise.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, describes our consumption of knowledge before and after the internet:

“Whether I am online or not, my mind now expects to take in information they way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving steam of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Furthermore:

“Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”

Have you ever been in a Facebook comment thread debate? Then this will feel painfully familiar. Shallow thinking spawns shallow engagement with others. The common courtesies you learnt as a child or in debating class to understand, listen to, and respect other viewpoints are thrown out the window. People feel free to hurl abuse and ridicule not just at each other’s arguments but at each other. The social network becomes antisocial. Alanis Morissette, eat your heart out.

How does this effect us?

Wading in the shallows of knowledge the Internet offers is not something that affects a particular demographic: it affects anyone who uses it for an extended period of time. That means all of us. For some strange reason, we assign ourselves expert status after watching a few YouTube videos. You would think that with the proliferation of information on virtually very topic, the most outspoken among us would do their due diligence to understand the view they espouse or oppose. This is not the case. Straw men abound.

Take, for example, how we talk about religion and God on the internet. All too often the norm is to belittle and dismiss our opponent’s arguments without seeking to engage or understand them. We settle for memes or parodies that build the faithful but antagonise everyone else. Perhaps we believe that by repeating, reposting and retweeting caricatures over and over again they might spontaneously come into existence.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the Internet and the capability it puts at our fingertips. However, any medium that encourages short and pithy truth statements is not conducive to deep understanding.

While the Internet has contributed greatly to knowledge, democracy, and communication, there is a darker side to this technology. It has made us think we know what we are talking about with minimal effort. My encouragement to everyone is this – study hard and know what you believe and why you believe it. Not only your views, but those you oppose. This is true intellectual satisfaction and honesty. For in the deep things of life, the shallows just aren’t good enough.

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