Monday, October 17, 2016

The Information Age Sucks.

If you know me, you know I've embraced parts of cyberspace with enthusiasm. I enjoyed CompuServe back in the 1980s. I've been on Facebook for some years (thank you, Maureen) and have posted many hundreds of my dad's photographs and my own. I don't text often, but email is my favorite form of communication. I've been in online writing groups, and I'm a devotee of GardenWeb (now Houzz). And on and on. But I wish we'd never been given any of it.

When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, we had Democrats and Republicans as we do today, but there the resemblance ends. I remember when no one had television, and I remember when we got our first one. (My dad gave me a choice of a TV or a puppy. I chose the puppy, but somehow he morphed the dog into a 12" Admiral console.) The news was broadcast on TV, but most people got their news from the newspapers.

My dad read one paper in the subway on his way to work in the morning, and another (the New York Herald Tribume) in the evening on his way home. People communicated with each other in person, or on the phone, or by letter. This is how we got our information. All of these methods allow for error, of course. Newspapers have never been 100% accurate 100% of the time, and as for talking to each other, do you remember the children's game "Telephone"? We all have our internal filters, some more . . . um . . . interesting than others, and what goes in doesn't always come out the same way.

But most of the time informational errors back then were relatively minor ones, and differences were subtle. The contrast with today is dramatic. And disturbing.

Today we are swamped with information, and depending on who you are, a great deal of it may be completely untrue. Crazy fiction. Dangerous stuff. We've heard quite a bit of it in recent months, but the fact is even in non-election years the emails go round and round, spreading stories most of my friends would never believe, but there are people who believe every word. President Obama wants to change the National Anthem to "Kumbaya"? Syrians punish their children by pouring boiling water on them? I read both of those things in forwarded-many-times emails sent to a friend.

And then there are the websites. NPR interviewed a woman who used to run a website devoted to challenging the "conspiracy theory" websites and their like, but she gave it up when she could no longer keep up with the huge number of them.

People pick up what they read on these websites, what they get in forwarded emails, what they hear on "hate radio," and they post it on social media, where it goes "viral." Wonderful. Never in the history of the world have we experienced this. Where it will lead, I have no idea. But I'm not optimistic. On "All Things Considered" this afternoon, there was a feature on an organization that talks to people around the country about Islam. We heard one of their speakers address a group in Montana. He spoke like a reasonable person, but the NPR reporter had to point out over and over that what he was saying about Islam wasn't true. Building on what the speaker said, a woman in his audience stated with conviction that Muslim refugees want to come here to convert us or kill us. Others in the audience agreed with her.