The internet, big transitions, and fundamentalist denunciations

The challenge I intend to raise in the following juxtaposition of quotes is not lament for the lost potential of the early internet, nor to take a dig at the naivete of people who promoted (or hyped) those ideals, but to invite digging deeper into analysis of the social currents that produce at the same time the evolving internet, the promotion of the internet in terms of a Big Transition in Society, and fundamentalist denunciation of all readings of the text except that of one’s church.

David Weinberger’s (2002) Small Pieces Loosely Joined argued that the “The Web… is challenging the bedrock concepts of our culture: space, time, matter, knowledge, morality, etc.” because it resists the idea that knowledge should be “context-free and universal.” The Web represents not only “databases,” but also

jokes, the other form of knowledge on the Web, [which] reveal what you weren’t expecting. If they’re predictable, they’re about as funny as a database… Jokes reveal a link we hadn’t seen, an unfolding we hadn’t anticipated. Laughter is the sound of sudden knowledge.

In this spirit, he claimed that:

When we make a tough decision, often it’s tough because we have too much information and it isn’t all consistent… Making a decision means deciding which of these “inputs” to value and how to fit them together to make a coherent story. In fact, the story helps determine which of the inputs to trust by providing a context in which the inputs make sense. That means the causality runs backwards: the inputs don’t determine the decision; the decision determines which of the inputs will count as influences.

A decade later, faced with students claiming that the Sandy Hook massacre may be a hoax, Brooke Hildebrand Clubbs writes in a 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education commentary:

Previously, although we may have disagreed, we had what I told my classes was “civil discourse.” But we had to agree on the facts. We could all have different opinions, but we couldn’t be basing our opinions on different facts. Now I realized that in the age of Facebook memes and YouTube conspiracy videos, my students had somehow got the idea that facts were subjective and supporting material unnecessary. They seem to be following “opinion leaders” who model how to respond when they are challenged: Vilify and name-call.

Demoralized, I went home and wrote to my longtime mentor. He sympathized, saying, “It almost makes you doubt the utility of the public marketplace of ideas, an idea which we defenders of the First Amendment have always cherished. Facts and information seem to be increasingly shut out of the market. Indeed, there seems to be a market for conclusions that have no connection to reality.”

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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