#181: Are We too Stupid for the Internet?

I have never been a cultural pessimist, nor have I ever been a Luddite. As soon as I was able to, I learned to use a computer in the pre-internet age (I still remember 5 ¼ inch disks and even data tapes), and as soon as the internet became available for private citizens, not just at universities, I started my own web site. For many years, a dial-up modem dictated file sizes, image qualities, and the overall time spent online – it was either the modem or the phone line, and other household members needed their access also. Google was still an obscure new search engine recommended to me by a linguistics professor, and it proved much more effective than the AltaVista search engine or the old web catalog Yahoo. Netscape reigned supreme and social media did not exist yet: you had to build your own web pages from the ground up. The availability of high-speed internet access for regular people was absolutely utopian, and the promise of internet access was seen as the ultimate victory for democracy: Finally, a real public sphere that could be utilized by all citizens, that could connect us globally and create a truly cosmopolitan world where we could all share our ideas productively.

This world still exists, and I still believe in it. But there are real challenges that question the utopian nature of the internet, or rather, that question this utopian vision of humanity. Maybe what the internet asks of us is the following: Given such a powerful instrument, are we able to use it right? Can we, as a species, truly “evolve” to adapt to the speed of information technology?

I have spent quite some time recently in the bizarro world of conspiracy web sites (No, I cannot be too polite about this). People who may or may not be well-meaning have created web sites or social media places in which they explain the world in ways that completely disagree with that of what they describe as “establishment” or “system” or “lying” media. Everything you know about the world, according to them, is wrong – almost all politicians, scientists, scholars, journalists and business people are lying to you, and we need to join up in outrage against a corrupt system. There is a lot of esotericism there, denial of the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic, denial of climate change, support for Putin’s Russia, support for “traditional” values like true masculinity and true womanhood, railing against all immigrants as criminals, complaints about “wokeness” and cancel culture (but mainly, when it comes to their own opinions not being respected) etc.

All of this is mixed in with some indeed legitimate points about the hypocrisy of the West (true), the overreaching in some cases during the Pandemic (sometimes true, but we should realize that our knowledge about Covid-19 was and even still now is limited, so we may sometimes have overreacted just as much as under-reacted towards it), the complexity of the Russian-Ukrainian situation (certainly, Ukraine has not yet been a perfect democracy – but Russian aggression since 2014 should tell the real story) and the uncertainty about some aspects of climate change (true, not all extreme weather is climate change, but all in all, the evidence that the planet is heating up, and that we are largely to blame, seems to be clear). Yet even the legitimate points are then warped to fit the conspiratorial narrative that sees hidden forces (a typical antisemitic trope) at work against regular people who are just trying to live their regular, traditional lives.

Now, everyone has a right to their opinion and world view. I am not arguing for censorship. I relish the opportunity to find these opinions out there, even if I strongly and sometimes violently disagree with them. No society benefits from close-mindedness, and we need to confront ourselves regularly with positions that we absolutely disagree with. Free speech is absolute, and without it, the world described by the conspiracy theorists would indeed have come to pass.

But in order to engage with the world as it really is (What an idea! Philosophers and physicists, of course, know it is not that easy…), we need to have the tools to engage with sometimes difficult interpretations of reality.

The question that seems to be emerging is thus is as follows: how do we develop our intellectual and emotionally-intelligent tools to indeed allow us to seek out alternative opinions, even “alternative facts”, without getting drawn into the maelstrom of fake news and conspiracies? How do we develop true media competency that does not eventually require us to censor what is out there?

At this point, I see little evidence for real engagement with this problem. The knee-jerk call for censorship only undermines the power of truth, for it provides those who are already skeptical of the reality as it is presented to them by politics, media, science and academia. We should not capitulate in the face of fake news and propaganda, and we should realize that the intent of those who disagree with what they would call the “mainstream” is not entirely malicious.

While there is also deliberate misinformation driving the world of alternative facts (some of it certainly actively promoted by Putin’s Russia, for instance), some of those who rail against the windmills of the establishment seriously believe that their critique is necessary and that it should be part of a democratic discourse – and even though I do not agree with them on the facts, I strongly agree with the impulse that drives them.

Marx has called for a “ruthless criticism of everything existing.” As uncomfortable as this is (and not all Marxists seem to have learned this lesson, by the way, because you should also then question your own assumptions and your own criticism as well), it is the only way we will be able to move forward towards the utopian world once promised by the internet. Yet this criticism needs to be checked by that which is indeed true and measurable. Here, again, Marx demanded that philosophy has to “become worldly”, and that we need to change the world, not just interpret it – meaning, that the world of ideas (Idealism) needs to be grounded by physical reality (Materialism). You may argue all you want that Covid is not real; tell this to those who have unquestionably died from this. You may argue all you want that Russia felt threatened by Ukraine; and yet, it has been Russia who invaded Ukraine in 2014, and not Ukraine. You may argue all you want that climate change is not real; and yet, look at the statistics, consider how in your own life temperatures each year have risen, heatwaves have become longer, and glaciers have receded – in all of our lifetime.

Facts need to always be interpreted, but the interpretation of facts should never be allowed to override the acceptance of facts as such.

Are we too stupid for the internet? Maybe. Our human brains have not evolved to naturally accept scientific principles. We are social beings, which means that our interpretation of reality is typically determined by our social surroundings. We are bad at perceiving the world as it is, because that is not how our physiology and psychology have evolved. We are not by nature good at dealing with criticism; our sense of self – and sometimes, our pride – focus on self-assertion for the sake of self-preservation.

The two principles espoused by Marx which I mentioned earlier – criticism and materialism – are part of the basis for science, and like science itself, they can be deeply counter-intuitive. But without them, we would lose the world we have built, we would lose a world based on what is real and measurable and true. I am not saying that materialism is everything – there are indeed “more things in heaven and Earth” than “dreamt of in […] philosophy”, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet puts it. We should not let sight of this. But this requires a different conversation about the values of modernity versus tradition – so let’s just say that, for simplicity’s sake, I am on the side of a modernity that still respects a modicum of tradition in order to feed the soul, but that the benefit of a materialist world view is that it can actually solve problems in reality, and actually create the kind of utopian society we have been dreaming of. But that is, indeed, a different topic for another day.

For now, what is the take-away?

While we may by nature be ill-equipped to deal with the internet, we can become equipped through culture and education: This is where the solution lies. Are we too stupid for the internet? Yes. Can we overcome this through education? Yes.

There is hope for us yet.