K-12: Internet vs. Ignorance. Who wins?

Some big thinkers dare to dream that digital innovations will produce ideal political transformations. In particular, many of our smartest people think participatory democracy will emerge only via the internet.

The basic idea is that people will get their information from the internet, discuss issues on the internet, form political alliances on the internet, and finally vote, all while sitting in front of a computer.  Is this a feasible future?

WIRED published a huge report on digital developments in Italy: an internet group called Five Star joined with a conservative populist group called Legga and snagged 43% of the vote in 2017 elections.  Almost nobody saw this coming.

In his 2001 book entitled The Web is Dead, Long Live the Web, Gianroberto Casaleggio rhapsodized about how technology would force governments to become completely transparent and accountable to the will of the people.  "Referenda on topics of national importance will become as routine as reading the papers on the evening news," he predicted.  "The interactive leader will then be the new politician, someone who continually transforms the wishes of public opinion into reality." 

The wishes of public opinion?  But will these wishes be smart wishes?  And wouldn't such a leader have his own wishes? 

Electronic democracy or internet democracy will supposedly incorporate 21st-century information technology and thereby enable true democracy.  We can look forward to a form of government in which all adult citizens participate equally in the proposal, development, and creation of laws.  Really?

Pundits are excited about the lack of centralized control; this makes censorship difficult and reduces the power of the media.  (Most modern democracies are representative democracy but not direct democracy.  It's assumed that a direct democracy is superior, and the internet can make this possible.)

The visions discussed in WIRED concede that human nature and traditional politics might always be hard to contain.  But the visionaries think the internet will inevitably be an invincible force for democracy.

Alas, there is a more immediate problem, somehow unmentioned in WIRED's cavernous article.  All of these visionaries, from Italy to Silicon Valley, assume that everybody is as well educated and well intentioned as they are themselves.

Is that the least bit reasonable?

The big problem is that schools and media stopped fulfilling their responsibility, in Thomas Jefferson's words, "to educate and inform the whole mass of the people."  Schools aren't teaching many facts; most media don't objectively report facts.  Can we now expect a vast ignoranti to govern itself?  People by the millions may chat on Facebook, but do they know what World War II was?  What lessons have they learned from the rise and fall of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Pol Pot?  Can people have big thoughts if they don't know the small facts about history, geography, science, and politics?

Arguably, the American public has descended to a depth of ignorance that is genuinely frightening.  Sure, the internet can bring everybody together at the digital table.  But what will everybody talk about?  What will they have in common beyond each day's ephemera?

Some digital pundits are dreaming seductive dreams.  But the intellectual landscape shifts under them.  The premise seems to be that voters will somehow be smarter and wiser than ever before.  Perhaps that train has already left the station.  Today, students learn little.  As they become adults, their brains fill with swill from agitprop operations calling themselves media.  Ignorance squared. 

Here's the big question: how do we prevent digital breakthroughs from being just another chapter in social engineering that leads to dictatorship?

American visionaries should oppose the dangerous ignorance now settling over the country.  WIRED especially should confront that ignorance. 

Thomas Jefferson, with no technology beyond a quill pen, was wonderfully foresightful about the dynamic we face: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free ... it expects what never was and never will be."

Jefferson declared: "Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."  If not, then not.

Two centuries ago, Jefferson said it best: "The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite."

The digital visionaries see a truly free society, at long last.  Do realists perceive a largely ignorant society waiting to be enslaved?

It's hard to see how all this plays out happily as long as our education and media establishments disdain their mission to inform the public honestly and objectively. 

Probably the only remedy is that Americans try to compensate for deficiencies our schools and media are now seeking to make universal, except for that small elite.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K-12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?  He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.

Some big thinkers dare to dream that digital innovations will produce ideal political transformations. In particular, many of our smartest people think participatory democracy will emerge only via the internet.

The basic idea is that people will get their information from the internet, discuss issues on the internet, form political alliances on the internet, and finally vote, all while sitting in front of a computer.  Is this a feasible future?

WIRED published a huge report on digital developments in Italy: an internet group called Five Star joined with a conservative populist group called Legga and snagged 43% of the vote in 2017 elections.  Almost nobody saw this coming.

In his 2001 book entitled The Web is Dead, Long Live the Web, Gianroberto Casaleggio rhapsodized about how technology would force governments to become completely transparent and accountable to the will of the people.  "Referenda on topics of national importance will become as routine as reading the papers on the evening news," he predicted.  "The interactive leader will then be the new politician, someone who continually transforms the wishes of public opinion into reality." 

The wishes of public opinion?  But will these wishes be smart wishes?  And wouldn't such a leader have his own wishes? 

Electronic democracy or internet democracy will supposedly incorporate 21st-century information technology and thereby enable true democracy.  We can look forward to a form of government in which all adult citizens participate equally in the proposal, development, and creation of laws.  Really?

Pundits are excited about the lack of centralized control; this makes censorship difficult and reduces the power of the media.  (Most modern democracies are representative democracy but not direct democracy.  It's assumed that a direct democracy is superior, and the internet can make this possible.)

The visions discussed in WIRED concede that human nature and traditional politics might always be hard to contain.  But the visionaries think the internet will inevitably be an invincible force for democracy.

Alas, there is a more immediate problem, somehow unmentioned in WIRED's cavernous article.  All of these visionaries, from Italy to Silicon Valley, assume that everybody is as well educated and well intentioned as they are themselves.

Is that the least bit reasonable?

The big problem is that schools and media stopped fulfilling their responsibility, in Thomas Jefferson's words, "to educate and inform the whole mass of the people."  Schools aren't teaching many facts; most media don't objectively report facts.  Can we now expect a vast ignoranti to govern itself?  People by the millions may chat on Facebook, but do they know what World War II was?  What lessons have they learned from the rise and fall of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Pol Pot?  Can people have big thoughts if they don't know the small facts about history, geography, science, and politics?

Arguably, the American public has descended to a depth of ignorance that is genuinely frightening.  Sure, the internet can bring everybody together at the digital table.  But what will everybody talk about?  What will they have in common beyond each day's ephemera?

Some digital pundits are dreaming seductive dreams.  But the intellectual landscape shifts under them.  The premise seems to be that voters will somehow be smarter and wiser than ever before.  Perhaps that train has already left the station.  Today, students learn little.  As they become adults, their brains fill with swill from agitprop operations calling themselves media.  Ignorance squared. 

Here's the big question: how do we prevent digital breakthroughs from being just another chapter in social engineering that leads to dictatorship?

American visionaries should oppose the dangerous ignorance now settling over the country.  WIRED especially should confront that ignorance. 

Thomas Jefferson, with no technology beyond a quill pen, was wonderfully foresightful about the dynamic we face: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free ... it expects what never was and never will be."

Jefferson declared: "Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."  If not, then not.

Two centuries ago, Jefferson said it best: "The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite."

The digital visionaries see a truly free society, at long last.  Do realists perceive a largely ignorant society waiting to be enslaved?

It's hard to see how all this plays out happily as long as our education and media establishments disdain their mission to inform the public honestly and objectively. 

Probably the only remedy is that Americans try to compensate for deficiencies our schools and media are now seeking to make universal, except for that small elite.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K-12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?  He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.