I remember when the internet became available to me quite well. In those early days we still had to use dial-up modems and browsing the internet was a slow process. The entire experience was sometimes absurdly frustrating but even way back then we knew that this was going to change the world in ways that we couldn’t even imagine. Information was suddenly available with a keystroke. We could search massive databases of scientific, educational, and other data. We suddenly had so much information available to us that we weren’t even sure what to do with it.
The advent of the “blog” was still a few years away. At that time we just had access to journals, magazines, news sites, and school and government databases. Chat rooms became ubiquitous and we discovered that we could communicate with people half the world away. If we wanted to discuss things, we went to the chats. If we wanted to learn about things, we went to the journals. It never occurred to us that the information out on the ‘net was incorrect. It was just information.
Somewhere along the line though people started using the internet for other purposes than just finding information. They started interpreting that information. Rather than simply reading the facts, they started summarizing what they read and adding their own spin to it. Before long the spin became the story and the facts receded into the background.
Today, we get our information not from journals or unbiased news sources. We get our information from other people who get their information from other people who get their information from other people. We rely more and more on someone’s interpretation of what they heard or read rather than looking at the facts behind their opinion. Much like a game of telephone, the facts get distorted and lost in the translation.
We, as people, are generally lazy. We want our information provided in easy to digest chunks. We want to read the summary rather than the long explanation. Instead of reading long articles describing all of the points of view we rely on sound bites and increasingly we seek out those sound bites that reinforce the opinion we already hold rather than challenging ourselves with opposing points of view.
In the past, if we wanted to learn about a topic, we had to study it. We had to put forth the effort to understand the research and the facts. Now we don’t need to do anything more than read a blog with a nicely summarized opinion at the bottom (again, most likely nicely dovetailed into what we already think anyway).
We regularly discuss things as if we are experts. We talk as if we’ve done the research ourselves rather than reading blogs. We think very highly of our opinions and feel like they are rooted in solid facts. We also feel that those who are opposed to our point of view are opposed to us personally and that any disagreement is a personal attack on our character instead of a disagreement over interpretation.
The internet, and the pervasiveness of facts, has given us an amazing capability for locating and sorting through a vast array of information but it has also turned us all into amateur experts on every topic from nutrition to the quality of cinema. We freely throw statements around like “This movie is horrible” or “if you don’t eat this food you’re stupid” like our opinions are not only gospel but irrefutable. We simplify complicated issues into bite-sized trivialities and ignore all of the complex and intertwined nuances that make up the real issue.
We aren’t all experts on everything. Most of us aren’t really experts on anything.