They say the wealth of volumes it contains
Outnumbers the stars or the grains
Of sand in the desert. The man
Who tried to read them all would lose
His mind and the use of his reckless eyes.
… said Caliph Omar, describing the Great Library of Alexandria before commanding his soldiers to destroy it, in Jorge Luis Borges poem ‘Alexandria, AD 641’
Over a thousand years later, modern man finds himself, much like the legend of the book-burning Caliph, face to face with all the world’s knowledge – the manuscripts and parchment now replaced by signal bits flowing through the electronic veins of the World Wide Web into which the globe has become intricately interwoven.
The volume of information generated every 48 hours now exceeds the sum of all the words uttered by mankind since the beginning of time until the 21st century, according to Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google – an Internet behemoth consumed by the idea of indexing “all the world’s knowledge”, having taken up the challenge of painstakingly scanning every book ever printed, capturing every image, collecting every video, and recording every musical note.
If informed debate is the catalyst that strengthens democracy, and communication the antidote to war, then the Internet has provided an inexhaustible source of illumination, and an unprecedented platform for billions of people to engage with each other.
And yet, a curious thing has happened. The avalanche of papers, viewpoints, analyses and thoughts has left in its wake a society that appears to be increasingly unreceptive to fresh ideas.
Reality distortion field
The discerning Caliph’s observation that “The man who tried to read them all would lose his mind” is especially true of the Internet.
Recently, Google rolled out a feature by which a person’s search results would return content recommended by friends and family who are likely to share his opinions. Unknown to the user, his search results are already being tailored based on a number of other factors, including his reading habits, location and previous search terms.
Perceptive users of social networks like Facebook would notice algorithms carefully designed to weed out content posted by non-like-minded ‘friends’ from appearing on their activity feeds – resulting in their ‘Wall’ being plastered with views they largely agree with.
In other words, the web is increasingly becoming a deceptive mirror, telling one exactly what he wants to hear.
This collateral censorship due to skewed results tends to create a bubble around users, steeping them in a confirmation bias that results in highly polarized views, which is evident from volatile, emotionally charged comments on the Internet, often over trivial matters.
As with real life, polarised extremities can rarely engage in healthy, democratic debate.
It is easy to observe the balkanisation of the web simply by identifying the cartels of blogs and personal websites. Liberal bloggers link to one another. Islamist websites feed off each other’s content. Christian blogs share gossip in their own closed loops. Creationist networks cite each other as sources. Atheist campaigners pat each other on the back. Environmentalists. Conservatives. Anarchists. Nationalists.
Not only are people becoming increasingly isolated in self imposed online ghettoes, but the gated communities are becoming mutually hostile and blindly dogmatic than ever before.
The scepticism of climate change deniers towards easily verifiable statistics demonstrates this phenomenon, as does the fanatic’s contempt towards established science.
The Internet has made it incredibly easy to find out and learn about other peoples and cultures, other religions and perspectives, other views and opinions. And yet, the Internet is also where racists, bigots and supremacists have found refuge.
Despite thousands of scholarly articles, research papers, scientific publications and public archives available freely online, the Internet is also a place where conspiracy theorists continue to thrive, carefully avoiding the zones of enlightenment.
In other words, users intimidated by the bewildering expansiveness of available information can become ensconced in a comfortable, personally tailored reality that the Internet is happy to provide.
Thought Control Protocol
Cult leaders, dictators and fanatics are known to confiscate and burn books by dissidents and ‘heretics’, in order to ensure their followers’ unwavering adherence to ideology.
The combined knowledge of antiquity went up in flames in Alexandria, and plunged civilization into darkness and wasted centuries. While the modern-day Caliphs cannot quite burn down the intangible web – they have figured out that it can be regulated or, even better, replaced.
The People’s Republic of China effectively hides one-fifths of humanity behind their Great Firewall, blacking out entire concepts, ideas, and incidents from history.
The famous satellite photograph of the Korean Peninsula taken at night, that shows an isolated North Korea plunged in darkness, in stark contrast to the brightly lit South illuminated from coast to coast, also accurately illustrates the North Korean regime’s absolute black out of information from its citizens, cloaking them in a terrible darkness.
In the aftermath of the ‘Twitter revolutions” across the Middle East, Iran is reportedly pressing ahead with plans to move its entire online population to a “private, regulated Internet” within two years, cutting them off from the rest of the world.
As with political mullahs elsewhere, the Iranian clergy deny they have any political motives (perish the thought!) Instead, they have put forward the honourable, time-tested justifications of “protecting Islamic values” and “preventing corruption of the youth from evil, Western influence”.
Myanmar and Cuba also have private nation-wide networks, designed similarly with noble intentions of preventing their innocent citizens from eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge.
The unrestricted, untamed power that the Internet bestows into the hands of ordinary people has made it the bane of theocracies and other dictatorships seeking rigid control.
The collapse of a brutal, 30 year old dictatorship in two weeks bears testament to its immense capabilities – and the reason why politicians are increasingly clamping down the Internet, including in the West.
Even young democracies like the Maldives have shown symptoms of this malady, with the present government banning several websites deemed to be critical of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the political party that controls it.
The desire to control and censor information in the Internet age is the surest sign of authoritarianism, and should rightfully alarm proponents of democracy.
Even when the censorship is self-imposed and cultivated by a desire to live in a tailored reality, then also, democracy is equally threatened.
Democracy thrives on free flow of information. To achieve this, it is not sufficient to just bring down authoritarian regimes, but one also must break down mental barriers that form the walls of the Internet ghettoes and reach out to the other side.
For democracy to survive, one must boldly confront views that are often unpleasant, patiently hear out ideas that are uncomfortable, and acknowledge voices that disagree with oneself – because, as it turns out, it is exceedingly easy to be wilfully ignorant, despite having the world’s knowledge at your fingertips.
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