Like the old adage that the camera adds ten pounds, I have long held that the web magnifies everything. That which is wonderful becomes more wonderful, as reviews and conversations spring up around creations. That which is terrible becomes worse, magnified by echo chambers of disturbed and ignorant people. It is, of course, people who create the magnification, not the accessibility or extent of the web itself. This is why I avoid blaming or crediting the internet itself for anything except its openness. It is always those who use it who create impact, thus it becomes both a mirror and motivator in our culture.
And our culture values extreme experience, even with vicarious experience. I notice this particularly in the visceral violence of popular films, theatre and art, because I personally cannot handle that level of violence, be it physical or psychological. But it is also the case in real life, where a Catholic priest on the radio did not shy from blaming social networking for the extent of rioting following the Orange demonstrations in Belfast this week, which involved large numbers of young people and children.
from xkcd webcomic
In the case of education, accuracy has long been a complaint of using the web for finding factual information, and here also the tendency to magnification causes progblems. There is an assumption that mob wisdom pays off at some point.
I experienced a cultural example today, as I heard a very famous piece of music. I know it’s been used in movies, and I wanted to know what it was. I thought maybe it was from the Mission, so I looked up the sountrack on Amazon, but no. So I thought maybe Excalibur? Sure enough,
I found it – music from Excalibur, the famous song, called O Fortuna, by Richard Wagner. Made sense — it’s very Ring cycle-ish. I cannot tell you why I scrolled down to see the “Shouts” where people commented it wasn’t Wagner at all, but Carl Orff. So I did another Google search (this time for O Fortuna), and ended up here. Both Wagner’s and Orff’s name are there, but a person voted for the Wagner answer, so that put it at the top with 100% rating. That makes it look like it’s correct.
Minor, I know, but it’s like another old adage: you always find something in the last place you look. Why? Because once you’ve found it, you stop looking, of course. Once you’ve learned that it’s Wagner, why continue? The camera adds ten pounds and the web adds truthiness through popular acclaim (even if it’s only one person acclaiming). It magnifies ignorance as well as, if the priest is right, violence as social recreation.
When people say it is a professor’s job to be a guide rather than a source of information (because information is so readily available via the web), I used to nod. Now I look confused. We need to guide through false information just as we did before, when printed texts were examined and finding multiple sources was required to prove a point. This involves a skill, not only of research but of temperament. To not be content with what you’re told is a foundation of democracy, and essential to becoming an educated person instead of a twisted subscriber to a terrorist blog. Learning cannot simply be subject to the whims of fortune, substituting a single search for actual thinking, curiosity and research. At a minimum, Carl Orff would appreciate that.