Here in These United States of the 21st century we’re pretty proud of our technological progress, our online connected-ness and our tweet-every-time-we-fart social media. We invented the Internet, dammit, and look how cool it’s making us. Or so the theory goes.
But I’m working on a little theory of my own here, so bear with me. I’m thinking that, contrary to current cultural myth, the Internet is an abject failure in communications. Rather than taking advantage of our new digital tools to expand the horizons of our knowledge and improve our understanding of the world, we’re instead using them to draw inward on ourselves and create self-centered villages of pseudo-information and half-truths.
It’s not a big surprise. Television — another revolutionary medium pioneered here in the USA — was also a failure. TV placed in our hands the ability to both see and hear the world as experienced by others, but instead we used it primarily to recycle bathroom humor and watch Monday Night Football.
I got to thinking about this the other day after showing around my workplace some photos from my family’s just-completed vacation to Guatemala. The general theme of my co-workers’ comments was basically “Wow, that’s so strange. I can’t imagine living in a place like that. It looks like another planet.”
Well, no. It’s OUR planet. In fact, more of our planet “looks” like Chichicastenango than it “looks” like the suburban US. How is it possible, in this era of lightspeed social networking, that so many people can have such a narrow worldview?
Simple, really. Just consider for a moment the typical, modern-day social media experience. Who do you interact with most frequently on services like Facebook and Twitter? Are they strangers, foreigners, people who see the world differently and who challenge your understandings and beliefs? Or are they people you know, like-thinkers who share similar worldviews and who generally serve to confirm the beliefs you choose to hold? Do you use social media to reach out curiously to the wide-wide world, or to create a tribal ‘orbit’ that circles inward upon itself?
Obviously, I’ve got a strong opinion on the topic. Let me be clear: I despise incuriosity.
[Note: I don't use the word "despise" frequently, and I intend it here with all of its old-fashioned vitriol and malice.]
The way I see it, curiosity is THE driving force in the development of humankind. The incurious stunt our progress, crush our capacity for growth, diminish our acquistion of new knowledge, destroy creativity and just generally screw things up. What saddens me most is the historical example — repeated frequently — that demonstrates each time we create new tools which carry the promise of exponential human growth, we instead use them to turn more tightly in upon ourselves and erase from our view everything that isn’t us.
So how did a short vacation to Guatemala turn into a rant against vapid anti-intellectualism? That’s easy. A properly-executed vacation is a big pull on the flush handle of my mental toilet. All of the crap goes glug-glug-glug down the drain, to be replaced by a new bowl full of sparkling, fresh thoughts.
Now, back on topic. Since I’m taking a dim view of collective curiosity today, I’ll further theorize that our Internet use has grown so quickly — and the formerly ‘traditional’ media have collapsed so rapidly — primarily because media like television and newspapers didn’t fail fast enough to suit us.
What the explosive growth of blogs and agenda-driven ‘news’ websites tells me is that we like our information sources fragmented and unregulated, enabling us to pick and choose those sources that most closely fit our comfort zones. With first cable, and then satellite, television tried to fragment into this same sort of universe of tightly self-centered information galaxies — but compared to the costs of running a website, TV production is vastly more expensive so the effort produced only half-assed results.
But now with the Internet we can quickly and easily get the whole ass. People who get their news from parroted headlines on Facebook and re-tweets on Twitter can get just about any version of the ‘truth’ that they want: Obama started the war in Iraq, trickle-down economic theory really works, the Earth is flat.
Take your pick. And why not? Just about everybody else does.