Title: George Orwell’s 1984
Let’s say that at some point within the next week, we discover how to travel back in time. Let’s say we bring our smartphones with us to show the old world.
How would we explain them?
“Here,” we could say, “in the palm of my hand, lies a device that contains every piece of knowledge ever recorded in human history. Every song and text, every religious doctrine, every society and culture that has ever risen and fallen, every observation ever made in the name of science and philosophy… With this device, you can know instantly the answer to any question. All you have to do is ask it.”
Upon which an ancient Greek scholar might look up and say,
“What a world you must live in, where every citizen is so accurately informed of the world around them. How simple discourse must be with such a device! How truly peaceful and civilised is our future to come.”
“Yeah,” we say, nervously. “About that…”
We hold the world in our fingertips, yet the vast majority of the Internet consists of obfuscated data and code that isn’t accessible. Of the 10% that is viewable, a good three-quarters is porn. Why is this? Where’s all this “limitless information” that we were promised?
There’s no denying that it’s out there, but with great information comes great bullshit.
No matter what you believe, it takes only a few clicks to find a community of people who agree with you.
This, combined with the guise of anonymity, is one of the best and worst social and technological advancements of our time. The upside is that free speech is rampant. The downside is that free speech is totally rampant, and can manifest in some ugly ways.
Most of us are pretty wised up to this by now, though we still don’t particularly care. Every day a media release or opinion piece declares for the quadrillionth time that social media is manipulating our feelings, deadening our children’s minds, or sapping our attention span.
Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. What we do know is that more and more of us are getting sucked down the rabbit hole and not coming out. Internet addiction disorder, while receiving a wealth of attention in recent years, is not listed in the DSM-V. For nations such as South Korea and Japan, however, it has become a huge social issue. Every year thousands of people die from literally sealing themselves away in rooms with little more than a computer and an Internet connection.
It’s become somewhat of an ironic statement to make, but the Internet–and social media in particular–has become one big reassuring, pampering, motherly learning system.
no matter the community we identify with, its reassuring coo reminds us that what we’re doing is A-OK.
Venture beyond this hivemind, however, and opinions that are not our own start to appear hostile, even spiteful. “Why wouldn’t they agree with me?” we say. “I’ve done research. I’ve conferred with countless others who all share my belief. Anyone who disagrees with my way of life is obviously against me.”
We have conditioned ourselves into a corner by surrounding ourselves with likeminded others, shunning anyone who may cause us to doubt our convictions.
The real world doesn’t work this way. Outsides of the digital confines we make for ourselves, debate and dissent is rife. We can’t simply close our eyes or hit backspace every time we see something we don’t like, yet many who have been sheltered by the bubble of online communities are advocating for reality to reflect them.
Even at universities–institutions that champion open-mindedness and debate as core values–students protest to be shielded from dissenting information. They are our generation’s anti-establishment warriors, and they reject the notion of giving a space to all sides in any given debate.
Their argument is straightforward, and seems rooted in truth. Those who disagree with their tailored worldview are attempting to control them. Those who dispute their sources of information are trying to tell them what to think and what to feel.
And this sounds like a reasonable argument, until we realise that almost everyone does this.
Parents, teachers, experts, advertisements, cultural norms, big business, charities, humanitarian organisations; all of them tell us in one way or another what–rather than how–to think and feel. Some do out of goodwill and some out of greed, but only through exposure to both do we become better at sensing motive. This means hearing all sides and deciding on our own merit what is right, free from as many invested interests as possible.
We hold the world in our fingertips, and yet most of us choose to explore only a very narrow slice of it because it is easy and comfortable. And if there’s one thing that Internet exceeds at, it’s making us comfortable.
“So,” the ancient Greek scholar says, fingering his beard. “You’re saying that, despite having all the world’s knowledge available to them, your generation actively choose to hold onto that which they already believe? You’re saying that some do this to such an extent that they seal themselves off from those around them, even to the point of death?”
We show him the phone. “See for yourself. Search anything you wish.”
The scholar navigates to a database on Greek philosophy adjusted for the scientific age. For a long while he reads, focusing on the modern theories that have made some of his longstanding predictions obsolete.
“Well?” we ask. “What have you found?”
“This is absurd! Our culture has been built from the theories of these great philosophers! How can you so readily dismiss them? Who are these people, who tell me what to think and feel? Who do they think they are?”