I often hear or read opinions about how bad the Internet and the digital age is in terms of people’s ability to think. I must disagree. I considered not putting up this post, as I think that I am stating the obvious. However, the ubiquity of contrary opinions that I hear on an almost daily basis has convinced me lay out my opinions.
For those of us who are curious about the world, it is simply the best time to be alive so far. Of course there are negative aspects to the information age. There are negative aspects to almost everything; but for those who utilize these modern tools to propagate and explore real knowledge, ideas and opinions, the digital highway is a wondrous medium that no previous generation has had the good fortune to have at its disposal.
No one needs to be reminded about the ocean of information and resources available. Just as importantly, there is such a free and efficient exchange of information, viewpoints and ideas. Book Blogging is but one example!
In The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined Steven Pinker draws a parallel between what he calls our “Electronic Republic” and the old Republic of Letters. Centuries ago, intellectuals and writers kept their ideas percolating by a system that was known as “The Republic of Letters”. During the 17th and 18th century, these notable thinkers engaged in a written exchange of ideas and commentary. Today, people throughout the world have availed themselves the use of this new medium. The modern community is so much vaster. Furthermore it is not solely for the elites anymore. Millions of people throughout the globe are participating. Of course, our system is also much more efficient in terms of speed and is enhanced by verbal and visual communication. Though Pinker’s analogy between the centuries old medium and our modern interactions is limited and not entirely congruous, in many ways our current endeavors are an heir to the old literary republic.
All of my life I longed for more fulfilling communication with interesting, dynamic and innovative thinkers. Long before the Internet came along, I established friendships with such folks, read books and articles written by other such people and even watched television that helped me to understand the world better. Now, however, at any time of day or night I can read, communicate and exchange ideas on my blog, as well as on the sites of fellow bloggers. I can download millions of books and access essays on technological and scientific subjects, history and literary criticism. I can read and comment upon magazine articles, watch videos of authors discussing their books, the list goes on and on!
Many will lament the profusion of fluff, junk information, hate speech, etc. found on the Web. Many humans will also inevitably spend enormous amounts of time on silly online pursuits (indeed, I do so a little myself!). I think that we must ask, however, twenty, or fifty, or one hundred years ago, were there that many more people engaged in intellectually stimulating pursuits? I hazard to guess that the information age has stimulated more then stymied the growth of curious minds. A dreamer, out of the box thinker, or even just a bright individual, who in years past might have been stuck in an intellectual backwater, now has access to vast communication channels with paths that reach to the far edges of both the geographic and intellectual world.
Nevertheless, a lot of unproductive time is spent with electronic devices. Some folks have had their lives consumed by them. However, when it comes down to it, I could care less what most people do with their time or their thoughts. I am just very happy and grateful that myself and likeminded folks have such a wondrous and useful door to the universe at our fingertips!