“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.”
– Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 1996
“When we can’t think for ourselves, we can always quote.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
I don’t usually like to start with such verbose quotes, but I found them to be particularly prophetic. Without knowing the source, one would think that Sagan wrote that only five years ago, not twenty-five. How did the philosopher Wittgenstein foresee that, over 50 years later, millions of mindless lemmings would be given the means to so easily share and retweet the ideas of others, without the capacity for independent thought?
Whenever I hear the phrase “Objection sustained. The jury will disregard that last remark.” on TV, I have to laugh. Having seen our society corrupted by the scourge of social media and opinion-based broadcasting, I don’t believe the average human brain is capable of that level of reason anymore. Once we hear what we want to hear, it becomes more true to us and the rest is just noise.
In any given social scenario, we may think ourselves enlightened, objective, and impartial, but we eventually form a world view and will tend to disregard or dismiss that which doesn’t conform to it and weigh heavily that which validates it. This is the “lizard brain”, that primitive fight-or-flight instinct which reacts to threats without the use of cognitive thought.
Sadly, ideas themselves have become threats in a world where media-savvy demagogues understand how to prey upon the intellectual limitations of their audience. This is not at all the fault of technology, but an unfortunate consequence of its misuse. Technology (in this case, social media) can be a wonderful tool when used to educate, connect with family, start or grow a business, entertain, or inform (with truthful information), but not all tools are used in the way they were intended. Just ask Alfred Nobel.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a daily user of social media myself (Facebook only, and not proud of it), the occasional liker of memes, but primarily as a fact-checker. As expected, and with no false illusions, this has turned out to be a futile undertaking, but it makes me feel better to at least try to help the world spin in the right direction.
It’s disheartening to see, even when confronted with provable fact, we’ve become so indoctrinated in our views that we’re impervious to change, a direct result of the ease in which misinformation can be blasted at us and how the lizard brains validate each other.
Case in point, and once and for all, 2+3×4=14. I don’t care if you think it’s 20 and feel validated by the other 90% on social media who agree with you. You’re wrong. It’s math. It’s universal. It wasn’t “taught differently when you were in school”. Whew! There, I feel better.
It’s hard to remember a time where we didn’t have hundreds of millions of people, hiding behind their keyboards and spewing their sophistry without consequence. Even as a daily user, I wouldn’t lose any sleep if it all just went away. Addition by subtraction. I suppose TikTok and Instagram users can always try out for America’s Got Talent – they can use the reality check.
“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”
― Steve Jobs (1955-2011)
One wonders if Steve Jobs would feel the same if he were alive today.