The amount of information available today can be confusing. It is intimidating to some, and overwhelming to others. The newspaper we hold in our hands is almost archaic in a world that clicks, pokes and swipes, heads down, shoulders slumped, eyes glazed – constantly connected in an endless search for stimulation and distraction.
Everything that we are inclined to believe is supported somewhere on the Internet. Every fear, every fallacy, every prejudice is presented somewhere as fact, and we are losing the tools of discernment necessary to discover the truth. Many colleges no longer offer classes in logic, and in the rarefied air of some “academic” circles, even mathematics, the purest of the sciences, is considered “racist.”
History does not move in straight lines. The only thing new in the paragraphs above is the technology which ushered in this age of information. Past generations also struggled to discover the truth, because propaganda and institutionalized deception have always been with us.
Past generations read newspapers, books and magazines. They listened to the radio. They watched the nightly news on one of the three major networks. They relied on classical education, which emphasized grammar, logic and rhetoric, and the common sense available to an untroubled mind, to discern the truth of what they saw and heard.
Were they any closer to the truth back then, before the Internet, before we all became part of the “Matrix?” Perhaps not. Governments and corporations lied then as they do now. Woodrow Wilson sanctioned propaganda depicting Germans as bestial savages to manipulate U.S. citizens into supporting war against Germany in WWI. Prior to our entry into WWII, Roosevelt goaded the Japanese to war while preaching peace at home. We allowed empire builders to lead us into war with North Korea and North Vietnam. More doctors smoked Camels than any other cigarette. We were encouraged to embrace “better living through chemistry.”
Much was hidden from us in the days before the Internet. The mainstream media looked the other way on many of the indiscretions and peccadillos of past presidents, politicians and celebrities. Every aspect of every life was not surveilled and recorded. Though we had better personal tools for discovering truth, we had much less information with which to work.
Technology has revealed much about the past that was overlooked or intentionally obscured. Thanks, in part, to technology, there is no place to hide today in Hollywood – or anywhere else. Everyone who carries a smart phone, and that includes the majority of U.S. citizens now, is a reporter, with a hand-held microphone and film crew and an instant connection to the world wide web. Every bit of information that is stored digitally is vulnerable to discovery, as hackers have easily kept pace with new forms of encryption.
So how does one endeavor to deceive when it is impossible to hide information for very long? Truth is sometimes hidden in plain sight. Often it is obscured by the noise, as it is hard to discern a single note in a cacophony. Politicians obscure truth by manipulating the cognitive bias of their supporters, who sometimes find it just as hard to change their minds as it would be to fight an addiction.
There is a simple but profound reason for that: Belief can function in the brain in much the same way as addiction. Challenge a person’s beliefs, threaten their world view, and it causes them pain. They often react with anger or desperation, like a junkie denied a fix.
Where does that leave us, dear readers? Ignorance, they say, is bliss, but ignorance can be dangerous. By the same token, seeking too hard after truth can threaten our peace of mind and ultimately our good health. How can we be well informed without getting lost in the electronic Babel, without sacrificing peace of mind to the constant emergency of broken news?
The “ancients,” (our parents and grandparents) had part of the answer: Grammar. Logic. Rhetoric. The ability to understand, reason and communicate. It is never too late to learn, or to refresh these tools, and though modern education emphasizes short term memory with the goal of passing tests, nothing prevents us from teaching our children and grandchildren about these essentials.
Beyond these basic tools for continuing education, we must become curators of our own minds and our own experiences. We must decide for ourselves what is true and what is not, what has value and what does not. We must remain forever skeptical of any person or institution which purports to tell us that the world is this way or that way.
It is certainly easier to be entertained. But if we become so easily and habitually entertained, then we will also be easily frightened, easily angered and easily manipulated.