Presto Cogitation

October 15, 2012


What do you think is real and why do you believe it? Because you were told it by someone you trust? Because it is consistent with other things you believe?

It is easy to tell what you do know, and what you do not know. What is Mitt Romney or Barack Obama really like? Oh, I have an opinion, sure, but I have never met either of these gentlemen and in all likelihood, I never will meet them. All I have to go on is what I hear third hand from pundits, the news media and people I know (who get most of their input from the same sources I do). Is this anyway to really know anything? Obviously not. But it is the way our world works. It is the only way you can know anything about a diverse world with more than seven billion people in it.

So, we start out by deciding what we believe, which determines a lot about what we know and what we find out about. We have comfort zones of knowledge and ignorance, and we maintain them jealously. Of course, everyone else is doing precisely the same thing, so we end up living in a crazy patchwork quilt of other people’s ideas masquerading as our own.

Back before printing became universal, before mass media, the Internet, and global communication, the world was a much simpler place. People only ever knew a small number of people. Those few people were very influential in their lives, most people went along with their neighbors, and there was quite a lot of unanimity of thought and expression. Of course life was, in some ways, more limited. Most people didn’t even read. Some people held different views and opinions. If they had money they were considered eccentric. If they didn’t have money they might be shunned and abused. People from only a few miles away were outsiders, and thought to be deserving of mistrust.

By expanding that world, first in print and then on radio, TV, and finally through the Internet, we are making a global human community. My son knows people in a dozen countries he will probably never travel to and they have lots of things in common. They know the same images, and share a wide range of opinions and beliefs. This is unprecedented in human history, not because it never happened before, but because this state of affairs is normal for ordinary people. It is the biggest intellectual difference between the first world nations and the third world nations, and this difference is shrinking almost daily.

Previously, the largest force in the unification of disparate groups of people were religious organizations. Different Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish institutions created a unified identity and purposeful force in the world. Sometimes that force was used for good, and at other times it was used for evil. And as with most historical events, whether it was good or evil often depended on whose side you were on.

And, when most people lived in tiny villages and never knew anything about anything more than a day’s walk from where they were born, it was easy for a monarchy or a religion to appear to be so much bigger than anything else that it seemed ordained by God. But in a world of seven billion human beings, in a world where more than one billion people can participate in the same online community (Facebook), those governments, and those religions get to looking really small.

And the thing that scares all the powers that be much more than any other aspect of the Internet, or global technology is the potential for global democratization. Some people think that the cat’s already out of the bag, and that it will never be possible for people to be managed by their leaders quite the same ever again. Of course, people thought the same thing about radio and about TV and about global air travel...

All these things are merely tools and they can be used to do all kinds of things. It can bring us to unheard of heights of global democratic participation and personal liberty and autonomy, or it can enable unspeakable tyranny and oppression that is far more devastating and inescapable than anything dreamt of by Orwell. I’d like to say that the choice is up to us, but that isn’t necessarily so. Major changes of this kind have never been beneficial to people just because that was possible. People have to fight, and often die, for the principles of freedom and liberty. They have to recognize the fear merchants who are trying to sell their future down the river, for profit. They have to be able to take concerted action, as groups, to forge a real improvement in reality. Failing that, the future isn’t any brighter or better. It is up to all of us to work for the kind of world we want our children to live in, even if we never live to see it.

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