Sorting Things Out in Post-Truth America

There has been much speculation about the unexpected results of our recent elections, with analysts and pundits flailing about to determine what happened. One thing is certain, however, and that is that social media and other information technologies played substantial roles in these events, not altogether surprising. We have long assumed that the digital era we live in is part of a new flourishing of a knowledge renaissance, the mistake of being swayed by technology’s potential rather than its results. Now we find ourselves scratching our heads about “post-truth” and “alternative facts” and wonder what happened. We remain amazed as our new president claims that there were millions of illegitimate votes cast, a claim against all evidence and one threatening to undermine the very fabric of our democratic system.

We should not have been so surprised, perhaps, after all. We have had many commentators warning us that our dazzling array of information technologies does not represent a panacea for our societal ills. Nicholas Carr, in his latest book, Utopia Is Creepy and Other Provocations (New York: Norton and Co., 2016) is but a recent example of such assessment. Carr reminds us that we treat technology, digital and otherwise, like a religion, warning us of the complications caused by such a perspective: “The culture that emerged on the network, and that now extends deep into our lives and psyches, is characterized by frenetic production and consumption . . . but little real empowerment and even less reflectiveness. It’s a culture of distraction and dependency” (p. xix). Think of all those polls and other data suggesting a very different outcome to the election. It gets worse. Carr argues that our use of the Web and social media helps us to withdraw from society: “We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us” (p. xxi). In other words, just make up stuff, and keep doing it, since people will eventually believe it. Don’t read a book. Don’t think about anything.

It is not hard to imagine how these technologies contribute to social and political discourse fraught with exaggerations and falsehoods. It seems that people are susceptible to fake news, political falsehoods, and distortions of fact posted on the Web or encapsulated in Twitter messages. In general, it seems that we have lost our ability to evaluate critically text and other sources. It does not help that our cable news providers seem mostly to be reacting to what they see on Twitter rather than doing serious investigative journalism. All that information, some of it false or misleading, doesn’t make us smarter after all. It should only remind us that the various technologies provide us the potential to know more and to work and live smarter. We need to be able to discern the limitations of the technologies, not to put them on our altars.

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