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Literacy and Superstition in the Age of the Internet

  • In theory the age of the Internet provides a lot more information to every person.
  • In practice, people are less and less willing to spend time looking for information.
  • A huge store of information and a short attention span constitute a potentially catastrophic combination.
  • When the quantity of information was limited to libraries, a user of the library had to spend time to find information, and the process of assessing its quality was mostly part of the process of collecting a quantity of it.
  • When the average person had little information available, the process of finding information mostly coincided with the process of assessing its quality.
  • The outcome was that only the most persistent would find information and that information would already be vetted by the laborious process of finding it.
  • Because of the available quantity, a user of the Internet can easily find "information" about any topic, but assessing the quality of that information would take time, time that most users don't have.
  • By decoupling the processes of finding information (very quick and easy) and assessing its quality (very lengthy and difficult), the Internet provides everybody with information of unknown quality.
  • Therefore it is actually more likely that many people get inaccurate information, whether unproven conspiracy theories or glaring amateurish mistakes.
  • That is also often what goes viral and infects millions of other Internet users, who can readily access the same piece of information.
  • This process is very similar to the process that created superstitions in pre-literate times: spreading rumors among the illiterate masses that only learned experts (in scarce supply) could have discounted.
  • In ancient this chasm created the crisis between religion and science, with religious bigots deriding scientists (for not believing in what was widely believed to be true) and scientists deriding religious bigots (for believing in what was mere gossip).
  • The same antagonism is being recreated in the age of Internet literacy. On one hand the scholarly user (the person who is willing to spend time and assess the quality of information) can muster more and more ammunition for a certain opinion. On the other hand the user addicted to brevity can easily find in a few seconds enough pages quoting the same inaccurate information to discount the opinion of the other. From the latter's point of view, the two sources of information have, at best, the same credibility, and, at worst, the one that went viral is the one more credible.
  • This misunderstanding is creating again the same divide: the diligent Internet user scoffs at the "superstition" of those who keep repeating discredited theories, while the superficial Internet user scoffs at the obnoxious insistence of those who keep refuting widespread beliefs.
  • The masses, who used to depend on the knowledge of the experts, are returning to a culture based on the Internet equivalent of superstition.