Sunday, February 15, 2015

Internet Shock

What is on the internet? I have noticed it seems easier to find out stuff than it used to be. It is a striking difference over one lifetime, although I wonder what is the meaning and importance of this stuff that has become so much more available.

The modern internet, which started modestly only fifteen or so years ago, has become an immensity of data that lots of people insist is information, meaning they claim for it a certain definite credibility. Maybe they are vaguely skeptical, which is natural and normal, what they were taught by their parents in childhood, but they insist that most of it has truth value. That’s why the idea comes to mind that this stuff is information.

There is an awful pile of it; what are we to do with it all?

A bearish old man is crossing our neighborhood. He is ragged and acting kind of funny, up and down, herky-jerky, and it sounds like he is calling for his lost dog. It can get depressing; he won’t go away, and yet he is out there acting funny. Suppose he really is looking for something? You would prefer not to get involved. But what does he mean by hanging around? You would rather shut him off; but he won’t shut off. What springs up naturally is close to fascination. The skepticism kicks in. But suppose all this data spinning in and bearishly crossing our neighborhood is not quite real, in fact it is just static, electrical interference? and you can’t shut it off? Or even worse, suppose some of it is static and some of it is information, important information, in fact, with a definite truth value? Suppose it is fluttering in the air: a handsome young man shot in the head point blank on the streets of Cairo in real time.

When I remember the neat, correctly and expertly written articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica and compare them with the evolving and often confusing entries in Wikipedia, which did not exist till a few years ago, I feel that something has changed. I can still get the Britannica article (though not free) but the Wikipedia article is built in and it must be sufficient for my purposes, though perhaps mildly skewed, mustn’t it? So the notion behind my research is superficial, and I may not even be aware of it. Wikipedia data is easy to get and it is right there right now.

But there is more to this story: the situation deepens. The information is close enough in accuracy, and besides it never shuts off. Aren’t we so very little people with all this data surrounding us that we are ignorant of? What are we supposed to pay attention to? A sense of frustration, even shock must come over us. Our bearish, ragged stranger calling for his dog demands that we wonder what is important. What of this information is important? Is his dog the one who will bite me? The true object in the idea of self-education, which is what you do after you get out of school, is to learn to think for yourself. If the information is written in such a way that it is not understandable or is faulty even in little ways, if you haven’t managed to teach yourself how to think about it—most people never do—then it is useless. It is fallacy, illusion.

What is new about the sense of frustration at the besieging confusion of data? Ptolemy kept about him a few wise men, and their numerous sayings must have been at times confusing. The speed of change is one wonder. What, if anything, is being improved? But that’s the eternal question. Time is relative. Ptolemy’s rush of affairs may have troubled him as much as ours troubles us.

It is not normal for human beings to concentrate upon any one thing at length. History chronically complains about short attention span. A new war fought over the same ground every generation is the usual thing. It is normal to be hardened toward human mortality. Though information abounds, it is in the air, soon it is going to be in a corner of our eyeglasses, what has become different?

My personal interest in the Internet has to do with the simple and uneventful way that it seems to flow on. It flows on inside out; and without telling you, when you get the hang of it, events start happening. And it is fun to be gadget conscious. The question is where does it get you in the real world? A new war flies by, numerous the dead, with rumors aplenty but little honest recognition, debate airy, brief. Laws are now on the books whose aim is to prevent people from killing themselves texting while driving! Parents struggle with their children to eat and exercise rather than melt away like little wizards in front of a video monitor. Who am I to chastise them, when I, an old man, am apt to do similarly? It seems to me I have heard rumors of a headachy kid glued to a book.

Freedom, human equality remain spotty. The rich continue to run truth and justice; the poor have no say in anything, though they are not slaves any more. (Come to think of it, isn't that different in the last 4,000 years?) But it’s hard to get away with specific acts of despotism any more. Intellectuals continue to admire despots secretly, for they are capable of action. But little changes have evolved. Bad things tend to happen in secret, and unless you have been drunk all the time or you have smoked too much pot or you are just naturally dim perhaps you have noticed that secrets even about small things are hard to keep. But once the secrets get to the people, they remain ignorant. Experience is labelled as obvious and eschewed even via outright lying. The imagination runs rampant; the mass media, whether the New York Times or NBC are no less ripe with illusion than was the daily news in the kingdoms of ancient Greece. Sources remain unnamed; rumor rules all. One must study hard to approach the truth, and modern scholars are often not willing to be helpful.

What of all this welter is important? I don’t think there is any way to figure it out, but you know it when you see it. Test now for one second if this can be made understandable: an ancient Egyptian people runs about in a window in the corner of my video contesting with each other to the death over an idea, a dream.

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