History is punctuated by certain leaps in civilization–the discovery of fire, the leap from the bronze to the iron ages, or more recently, the industrial revolution. These advances are often surrounded by a huge upheaval of society.  Everyone had a certain way of doing things, and now this new technology or methodology is messing all that up.  The old way is out the window, and the future has suddenly become filled with uncertainty. These periods of transition are scary times.

The printing press – image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The same leaps can be found when we’re talking about how we share information. You could look at the transition from oral tradition to written history, or the construction of the world’s first libraries where information would be stored long-term outside of religious institutions.

The invention of the printing press is a great example–Johannes Gutenberg built a machine that gave the average person access to books. Before that point, 80% of adults in England couldn’t even spell their own names, but the literacy rate would start to increase exponentially: in under 400 years, the literacy rate would double.

Imagine the impact that would have on a society.  If the government says one thing, you can research it yourself.  It’s something we take for granted today, but imagine if you did not have that power.  If your only sources of information were the government and by word of mouth.  The average person would have absolutely no idea what was really going on, even in their own state.

You can spell your own name.  You can write your experiences or read about the experiences of others. It was a huge change for the entire world.

Another great example of a leap in technology that revolutionized the way that information travels?  The invention of the internet.

And now we find ourselves in our own, new brand of social upheaval.  “Facts” are reported that directly contradict each other, subject matter experts in the same area have opposite opinions, and the same statistics lead people to all sorts of different conclusions.  Echo chambers grow in size every day as people flock to like-minded individuals, instead of broadening their horizons.

How can you know what’s what?  At what point are you told what to think, as opposed to coming to conclusions on your own?

(AP Photo/Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

In order to effectively use the internet, people need to ask themselves: is this a place for opinions? The internet has it all–you’ve got the die-hard Obama fans, the people who hate him with a passion, and everyone in between.  If there is a shortage of anything, differing opinions is not it.  You’ve got short memes that somehow seem to sum up a whole argument in about a sentence–but hey, at least it’s funny.

Or maybe it’s a place for facts?  You’ve also got an insane amount of access to journals, encyclopedia-style entries and first-hand accounts of things happening across the globe–you could spend a lifetime sifting through it all and only scratch the surface.

Personally, I choose to use the internet to research facts as well as I can, and then I make an informed decision myself.  Here are some ways that I do this:

  • If I can’t explain the other side of an argument as if I were one of their own, then I haven’t done enough research.  If you’re a pro-gun guy, you should be able to argue against guns with the best of them.  If you think, they’re just a bunch of idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about, then you haven’t done enough research.
  • Whether I agree with it or not, memes and other forms of media that sum up political arguments in a few words are just not enough.  They’re too simplistic and only contribute to simplistic thinking.
  • I have tried to teach myself to distinguish between honest articles and political agendas–on the side of an argument that I agree with.  And I stay away from echo chambers of any kind.
  • I value the opinion of an actual expert over an articulate amateur. Just because you can form sentences eloquently doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about.
  • I have learned to recognize buzzwords as an indicator to a political agenda that often strays far from the truth.
  • And most importantly to me: be extremely critical of your own. If you can’t hold your “side” accountable, no one will.  If you find that they are faultless, you’re not doing enough research.

The internet can either become a public forum of opinion and “debate,” or it can become a highway for information.  It’s up to us.

AP Images

Featured Image: Afghan women surf the net in the Sahar Gul net cafe, the first internet cafe for women, opened in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, March 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)