Thinking Critically on the Internet – The Brock Press

Photo by: Arnel Hasanovic

Ethan Birch

Recently, I have been thinking about the act of thinking in a world that constantly exposes us to information via the Internet. I also reflected on how we navigate these digital spaces and what fuels our ability to reason. What stuck with me was a question famous author David Foster Wallace answered in a 2003 interview.

In this interview, he was asked what a generation that didn’t learn how to grow up – Generation X – should do to solve the resulting problems. He responded by explaining the cultural conditions that exacerbate an American adult’s natural tendency to be complacent in the world as it was nearly 20 years ago:

“As far as I understand it, being what you call ‘adult’ isn’t much fun most of the time…There’s a tendency to moralism in American life that extols the virtues of being an adult and to have a family and be a responsible citizen, but there’s also the feeling of doing what you want, of satisfying your appetites, because when I’m a business, appealing to the parts of you that are selfish and self-centered and who want to have fun all the time is the best way to sell you things.

Within his response is an analysis of the suppression of his generation’s ability to think critically and respond to the conditions of their existence caused by corporate interests. There is a lot of truth in what Wallace says so far.

He then talked about the problems of consumerism and how this thought retardation is seemingly unsolvable. He wonders if the tendency to make mental work easy rather than hard is something that has always been a problem. The answer is yes, this trend has always prevailed. However, living in a world where corporations have monopolized media platforms has only compounded the problem.

With Jean Francois Lyotard The postmodern condition, he discusses the problem of legitimizing knowledge as a predicate of computers in the emerging information age. We can see his thoughts from 1979 reflected in our current flood of information in the form of media today. It is difficult to know where we are in the information network of the Internet because of the dissemination of this information through vast connections of thought; rather than cementing ourselves in a closed book, we are teleported through a world of endless hyperlinks, advertisements and references.

It is becoming more and more difficult to stand alone in a definition because of the internet. In a book, one gives tactile footnotes to cling to like boulder holds on the surface of a rock face, but on the web, these holds flip over each other in number, shifting and swaying with changes in understanding.

But, is this a bad thing? Not entirely. It is the navigability of the Internet that is in question, not the information made available. If I were to call this bad, it would be as if I were criticizing the act of climbing when it is the wall itself that is at fault.

Misleadingly, I approached the internet as the place where we are woven rather than the media as this crossroads of struggle. I chose this word because often the Internet and the media are confused. The Internet is the world’s largest database and the media is its most notorious filtering system. At its core, media is the plural form of medium, which is the means by which something is done. When we filter information in any form (be it broadcast, newspaper, five senses, etc.), we are giving up some of its raw data instead of accessibility. This is not a bad thing, as any engagement with the world loses aspects of itself through transmission, but many forms of media grossly inflate their ability to retain information.

Any system of understanding will forever spoil the truth beyond a faithful representation of its data. There’s a postmodern adage, “the map is not the land”, which we’ve outgrown in recent years, but it still holds true in terms of audience engagement with information in the media. Therefore, recognizing that the media is an obfuscation of information rather than a vehicle for it should be the first thought people have when reading anything online. Rather than trusting easily consumable media, critical thinkers should see the dangers of easy as a sign that they need to dig deeper into a topic.

When we find ourselves entangled in a given information system, our job is to situate ourselves in the system and also to locate information relating to a basic understanding of what is real. Peeling away the layers of untruth should take priority over dogmatic surrender to the highest layer; Since we have such a wealth of knowledge and information online, the opportunity for everyone to dig into topics is more accessible if you are willing to put in the effort and do additional research from legitimate sources.

I am not advocating for the destruction of popular media in a defense of knowledge acquisition, but rather for encouraging people to search the depths of available information presented to them when it really matters. Our job as thinkers rather than consumers is to gather information to form our opinions and use it to legitimize the claims made to us in everyday life.

In the end, don’t let the gratification of accessibility be the death of your own ability to discern what is true and meaningful. Or, as Dylan Thomas wrote, “Don’t take it easy on that goodnight.”