The Great and Wonderful Oz of Information
We're now firmly in our fourth decade of the new information age. Most of us have donated our Encyclopedia Britannicas to Goodwill and shelled out a cool grand or more to buy a lightning-fast computer or smartphone capable of whipping through billions of bytes of world history to retrieve any imaginable information from our simple Boolean searches. Aren’t we proud of ourselves? All we had to do to find out who won the battle of Megiddo or discover when the first baseball was made was energize our fingers and proceed to the Emerald City of the internet and ask the great and powerful Oz, Google, or its royal courtiers: Facebook, Twitter, et al.
No more of that pesky storytelling at granddad's knee in front of the fireplace. We're done with the page-turning of some musty, heavy book. No more stumbling over an interesting little-known fact on our way to our destination. Nope. Our keyword search string has bypassed all the historical rest stops. The magical search engine that could has taken us straight to point B. We are now in the company of another would-be encyclopedia, the all-knowing, all-seeing, Wikipedia, or one of its cousins, purporting to be the bearer of truth. The world of words has come to us in a matter of seconds.
We are now better informed. We know who shot J.R. in 1980 and don't even need to speculate on the why. The data are all there, waiting for us, without a spoiler alert, ready to prostrate themselves at our feet. Now we can go forth into the world and mingle with all the other information junkies who know the price of everything but the value of nothing (thanks, Oscar Wilde) because that requires real critical thinking.
I'm ashamed to admit it, but my primary school education (which was superb in many respects) was lacking in critical thinking. Parochial school in the fifties wasn't a think-tank. It was a perpetual motion memorizing machine and, in a bizarre way, was the precursor to the internet and social media. Information in; repetition out. Context wasn't always the basis for a lesson plan. Dates, places, times, and the principal actors were drummed into our tiny sausage brains. Sister Mary Repetitious wanted good test results. She wasn't up for a detailed debate on the merits of any event or any theory. Read it, remember it and repeat it. That was her motto. "Let the Protestants do the critical thinking. We Catholics don't need context; we have faith!"
Strange how her modus operandi resembles that of the internet masters and the social media moguls of today, over six decades removed. Everything revolves around faith. No more messy and time-consuming back-and-forthing with uncomfortable questions. "We have people at the top who can ask and answer those." The Facebooks, Googles, Twitters, and Wikipedias of this world would have you believe that they are on our side and are doing the heavy intellectual lifting. Their mission is to sift through all the detritus spread by all those terrible misinformation-mongers on the right who would make you actually think about what you're doing and why you're doing it.
The latest data available suggest that Google processes 99,000 searches per second. This works out to be 8.5 billion searches per day, more than one for every person alive on the planet. This raises the question: are all those searches and the resultant information that's gathered actually making us smarter or wiser? Or are they just taking up more space on our cerebral hard drive? According to the previous administration's Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, 82% of America's public schools are failing our students. This was in 2020, before the current administration and its foot-soldier governors in blue states decided to shut down in-classroom learning. Now, that really makes sense! Why not go for the gold and try for the whole 100%?
Congratulations, Biden administration. We've arrived. We have a near clean slate, with all our children in trouble. Now the pedagogues can begin to teach our youngsters a whole new curriculum that does away with history and those pesky questions about context. They're now free to concentrate on teaching theories like CRT (Critical Race Theory) instead of established facts and introduce new "socially relevant" concepts like presumptive White supremacy and maybe encourage the urchins to question their own gender at an age when they can't even spell the word!
And the great and powerful Oz is silent on the merits of such changes; it continues to churn out 99,000 new offerings a second, all rank-ordered to make life easier for the information-needy user, blessed by the good information-keeping seal of approval. Yes, Dorothy, the new-age Emerald City is open for business and where one-size-fits-all, guaranteed not-to-confuse information, resides. Its many one-way streets converge at its royal palace, where the great and powerful hide behind the protective curtain of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
It all comes down to this: information is worthless without the wisdom to know how to use it.
Whether it's encyclopedias or the internet, we must remember that we all stand on the shoulders of history and the gray matter of our ancestors. Ultimately, it is up to each of us how much of our time is spent in looking forward without critically questioning what's behind us.
Stephan Helgesen is a retired career U.S. diplomat who lived and worked in 30 countries for 25 years during the Reagan, GHW Bush, Clinton, and G.W. Bush administrations. He is the author of twelve books, six of which are on American politics, and has written over 1,300 articles on politics, economics, and social trends. He operates a political news story aggregator website: www.projectpushback.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Azamat Ensenaliev via Pexels, Pexels License.