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David B.

Livingstone

 

 

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April 19, 2006

Too Much Information, Too Little Knowledge

 

In the mid-1930s, the social commentator and author E.B. White was invited to observe a demonstration of a primitive form of television. His comments afterwards were prescient. Television, he observed, would make events happening half a world away from us as real as those taking place in our own living rooms. And, he added damningly, "when we look into another's face, the impression will be of mere artifice."

 

Before it had even become a medium, White understood television's power to dilute, confuse and cheapen just about everything touched by its soulless gaze. Not that it mattered; America was more than ready to embrace the magical glowing box that would soon invade virtually every living room from sea to shining sea. By 1960, it was even ready to elect "the first television president," the photogenic and charismatic John Kennedy, whose poise and charm contrasted significantly enough with Richard Nixon's irritability and razor stubble to land him in the White House.

 

The ascendance of "the first television president" worked out well enough, if only by virtue of its delaying the descent of the nation into Nixon's clutches by eight years. Unfortunately, subsequent emergence of other media has had less favorable results.

 

It was only after the onset of Bill Clinton's second term that U.S. Internet usership achieved critical mass. Seduced by the siren song of "the next big thing" and the millions of AOL CDs plopped into their mailboxes, Americans raced to buy glitchy modems and to get "wired." And once the allure of online porn and e-mailed chain letters had worn away, what was left but the discussion forum and the online pundit?

 

Sure, the 'net has proven a marvelous tool. Now, with a few clicks of the mouse and the sacrifice of personal credit card information, we can buy the same worthless consumer products for which we used to have to drive to the mall from our own living rooms, barely budging from our Barcaloungers. And sure, one is able to find out something about just about anything after just a few seconds on Google. But it's the something that's the problem.

 

As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And the online world, as created, processed and assimilated by television-reared Americans, results in very little knowledge. The web's very democracy is also its chief weakness.  Internet information tends to be self-negating, as each assertion of fact is met with a contrary one. Gone is the notion of the shared understanding of any objective truth; the old arbiters of reality like Walter "and that's the way it is" Cronkite have been replaced by a multitude of cranky self-anointed experts whose perceived veracity is determined not by any objective vetting of facts but by hits, links and page views.

 

Online, a moron competes with an Einstein as an equal in an endless global shouting match where victory, defeat or any ultimate conclusion is rendered impossible. As a touchstone, it is instructive to note the ascendancy of neo-creationism. Only in the Internet era is it possible for superstitious twaddle to achieve equal footing with empirical science, and as debates in dozens of American states and classrooms have shown, that is precisely what has happened. Objective truth has been supplanted by subjective bombast, which in turn has come to guide public policy. Likewise, Goebbels's aphorism that "a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth" has shown its practical applicability in regard to the mythical Iraqi WMDs. Never mind that they never actually existed. If sufficient numbers of right-wing reality pimps repeat the mantra that they do, both popular opinion and military policy will respond as if they do.

 

The brave new info-world has been the perfect petri dish in which to grow the adulterated, corrupt culture of neoconservative Republicanism and its primary toxin, George W. Bush. A nation divorced from any objective reality needs a similarly divorced president, and the east-coast-bred mock-Texan with the fake twang and the compulsion to bomb other nations to rubble for the flimsiest of reasons - or no reason at all - fits the bill perfectly. The proverbial million monkeys have been given their million typewriters, and have typed their magnum opus: "ewiophgiownffdb." Their great leader, appearing on tens of millions of television and computer screens coast to coast to echo their clarion call: "ewiophgiownffdb." His loyal keyboard-armed monkeys repeat: "ewiophgiownffdb."  Down is up. In is out. War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Now, about those Iranian nukes.

 

As Walter Cronkite might say, that's the way it is.

 

2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.

 

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