Critically thinking on the Internet

Photo by: Arnel Hasanovic

Recently, I have been reflecting on the act of thinking in a world that constantly exposes us to information via the internet. I have also thought about how one navigates these digital spaces and what fuels our ability to reason. What struck a chord for me was a question answered by renowned author David Foster Wallace in a 2003 interview.

In this interview, he was asked what a generation that hasn’t learned to grow up — Gen X — should do in order to fix the issues resulting therefrom. He responded by explaining the cultural conditions which exacerbate an American adult’s natural tendency to be complacent in the world as it was nearly 20 years ago: 

“To the extent that I understand it, being what you call ‘grown-up’ isn’t a lot of fun a lot of the time… There’s a streak of moralism in American life that extols the virtues of being grown up and having a family and being a responsible citizen, but there’s also the sense of do what you want, gratify your appetites, because when I’m a corporation, appealing to the parts of you that are selfish and self-centered and want to have fun all the time is the best way to sell you things.”

In his answer lies 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 much truth to what Wallace is saying to this day. 

He then spoke on the problems of consumerism and how this stuntedness of thought is seemingly unsolvable. He wonders if the tendency to do easy rather than hard mental work is something that has always been a problem. The answer is yes, this tendency has always been prevalent. However, living in a world where corporations have monopolized media platforms has only made the issue worse.

In Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, he discusses the problem of knowledge legitimation as a predicate of computers in the burgeoning information age. We can see his musings from 1979 reflected in our current inundation with information in the form of media today. It’s hard to know where we are located within the internet’s information web because of the diffusion of this information across vast connections of thought; rather than cementing oneself into an enclosed book, we are teleported through a world of hyperlinks, advertisements, and unending reference. 

It is becoming increasingly difficult to stand alone inside a definition as a result of the internet. In a book, one is given tactile footnotes to cling onto like bouldering holds on the surface of a rock wall, but on the web these holds topple over each other in their numerosity, shifting and swaying with changes in understanding. 

But, is this a bad thing? Not entirely. The navigability of the internet is the issue, not the information that is made available. If I were to call this bad, it would be like me criticizing the act of rockclimbing when it is the wall itself that is the issue.  

Deceptively, I have addressed the internet as the place where we are webbed rather than the media as that junction of struggle. I chose this word because oftentimes the internet and media are conflated. The internet is the world’s largest database, and media is its most notorious filtration system. At its base, media is the plural form of medium, which is the means through which something is done. When we filter information through some form (be it broadcasting, newspaper, the five senses, etc.), we give up some of its raw data in lieu 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 mar the truth beyond faithful representation of its data. There is a postmodern adage, “the map is not the territory,” which we have blown past in recent years, but it still holds water in terms of public engagement with information in the media. Therefore, acknowledgement that media is an obfuscation of information rather than a vehicle for it should be the first thought people have when reading something online. Rather than trusting in easily consumable media, critical thinkers need to see the dangers of ease as a sign that they must look deeper into a subject.

When one finds themselves enmeshed within any given system of information, our job is to locate ourselves within the system and also locate the information relative to a base understanding of what is real. The peeling back of the layers of untruth should be prioritized rather than a dogmatic surrender to the topmost layer; since we have such a wealth of knowledge and information available to us online, the ability for one to dig into subjects is at its most accessible if you are willing to put in effort and do further research from legitimized sources.

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

Ultimately, do not let the gratification of accessibility be the death of your own ability to discern what is true and meaningful. Or, as Dylan Thomas famously wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”  

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