What happened to the promise of the internet?

Back in the fall of 2004, I had just entered high school and was really enjoying learning German. I had taken the first year of the sequence back in middle school, but then worked so far ahead in the workbooks that I ended up moving to the third year once I entered high school.

Just four years prior, Wikipedia was first launched, and I had already learned to ignore my teachers’ persistent warnings against it. Only having just entered high school, I quickly realized that whatever expertise I had was far below the current level of quality on Wikipedia. So I looked further, and found Wikibooks, a sister site focused on developing high-quality, open-source educational materials. From my experience, I had some ideas about how German should be taught, and spent my free time in the evenings building some of the content for that Wikibook. (For a taste of how I described my work there a couple of years later, see my user page.)

The emergence of Wikipedia and its sister sites was the first of the really special things that emerged last decade, the aughts or whatever we want to call it. The free access to information came with it the promise of universal education. And if widespread education could raise entire populations out of poverty, it invited us to believe that the 21st Century would bring us to higher and higher standards of living and public discourse. Little did we know…

That nameless decade also featured another big technological shift in our access to information: the introduction of smartphones. Steve Jobs first announced the iPhone to the world in 2007, and I distinctly remember later that year when Robert Dong, a high school friend, first brought his to our science bowl practices. Rather than writing something down to look up later, which we would often do for topics we needed to learn more about, Robert whipped out his iPhone and looked it up on the spot. What we take for granted today was mind-blowing at the time.

Naturally, though, the free information on the internet is only as useful as people have access to the internet, and smartphones are only helpful to those who can afford one. Fortunately, that seems to be a larger and larger contingent of Americans. According to Pew, as of last year, 88% of Americans use the internet and 77% of Americans have a smartphone, the latter number having especially rapidly.

77%! That’s surprising to me. I take for granted that in my own young, upper middle class and highly educated circles, smartphones are widespread enough that those without them frequently have to explain that they only have a “dumb phone.” But they’ve apparently gotten cheap and useful enough that poorer and older Americans are buying them, too, taking smartphones from the luxury item that they once seemed to be to a basic necessity of modern living.

As we were first reckoning about the consequences of a world filled with smartphones, the internet, and Wikipedia, I realized that this might be the end of at least a certain form of disagreement. I’m old enough to remember when people used to have debates over simple facts like who had won the Super Bowl ten years ago. The way this usually worked was that the two people arguing would try to reconstruct as much of the surrounding facts as they could (“No, the Patriots’ 18-1 season was in 2008; it was Peyton Manning and the Colts who won the year before that.”) until they either gave up or one was able to convince the other. There wasn’t really any sense of agreeing to disagree, just agreeing that we needed to go look it up to be sure.

Those sorts of arguments do still sometimes arise over our own personal histories, at least if the events in question occurred before they would be somehow recorded in some searchable communication means like Gmail or Facebook Messenger. But that fog of war is quickly receding — soon we will be able to irrefutably resolve any simple question of fact.

In the context of this much clearer grasp on reality, the major events of last year have felt something like a paradox. How could someone as manifestly unqualified as Donald Trump ever ascend to the presidency? How could, to be quite frank, proudly ignorant populism ever take root in a population as ours with so much access to information? What happened to the promise of the internet?

To take one example, in high school, I would have thought that important basic facts like the reality of anthropogenic climate change would have percolated into the general population by now. Not this:

That decline in both public opinion and perceived political importance was bad enough that in 2010, The Onion produced a mocking article with this classic lede:

According to a report released this week by the Center for Global Development, climate change, the popular mid-2000s issue that raised awareness of the fact that the earth’s continuous rise in temperature will have catastrophic ecological effects, has apparently not been resolved, and may still be a problem.

The characterization is sadly still true today. While public belief in anthropogenic climate change has rebounded to 48% (not even half!) today, we’ve also had record-setting average temperatures three years in a row. The dire predictions are starting to come true and a majority of Americans still don’t believe what nearly all climate scientists have concluded.

Some people will also think to bring up the number of people who believe in a young earth in this context. But unlike creationism, belief in climate change actually matters! We just elected someone to be president who famously claimed climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese, and as expected, he pulled the US out of the Paris agreement to voluntarily cut emissions. Again I ask, how?

To be honest, I can’t completely answer the question. This is something I’ve been wrestling with throughout the last two years of the coarsening of our national politics.

Of course, a big component of this is the scourge of political polarization, a topic which I have frequently discussed on this blog. But rather than play the same note again, I’d like to offer a couple more angles.

First, I’d like to compare this to one of my favorite moments of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, an insightful look at the magical world in which Harry and many of the other characters are super smart. In chapter 86, Harry first meets the famous Auror Mad-Eye Moody. When they have a slight disagreement, Moody challenges Harry to hit him with a spell for the right to contradict him.

I’m going to spoil some of the scene, so if you want to read it all for yourself, you can find it here, and read from the paragraph with the word “trainee” to Harry’s “sad-sounding sigh.” (The scene is only around 10% of the chapter, so it’s not as long as it seems.)

The relevant part of this scene is one of Harry’s tactics in dueling Mad-Eye Moody. Moody’s biggest strength, beyond his lightning-quick reflexes, is his magical eye that can see through everything, even Harry’s invisibility cloak. Harry recalls coming across a similar ability in his science fiction reading, and learning that the way to defeat it is to produce a bright light that only Moody could see. So (using a Time-Turner) he goes and asks Professor Flitwick to Charm a device that makes a large number of bright shapes filling the room, but invisible, so they will only confuse Moody and not himself.

This tactic seems to be what ultimately dooms us when it comes to the ease of access to information that the internet has to offer. Like Moody’s eye, our vision goes much further than it used to. But that also makes us vulnerable to being bombarded with a bunch of false or misleading information.

Ease of access to accurate information is therefore not the panacea I once thought it might be. With that great power also comes great responsibility to wield it appropriately.

On top of partisan animus towards the “liberal media”, this created a deadly combination. Charlie Sykes put it best in an eye-opening op-ed in NYT Magazine:

Mr. Trump understands that attacking the media is the reddest of meat for his base, which has been conditioned to reject reporting from news sites outside of the conservative media ecosystem.

For years, as a conservative ratio talk show host, I played a role in that conditioning by hammering the mainstream media for its bias and double standards. But the price turned out to be far higher than I imagined. The cumulative effect of the attacks was to delegitimize those outlets and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information. We thought we were creating a savvier, more skeptical audience. Instead, we opened the door to President Trump, who found an audience that could be easily misled.

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate Sykes’s words for a moment. You don’t see many mea culpas in a hyperpartisan environment like today.

Moreover, beyond just opposing Trumpism, Sykes identifies where his own approach went wrong: Teaching people to be skeptical of the mainstream media doesn’t actually make them more skeptical of all news in general, just news that disagrees with their own typically partisan inclinations. They gave people mental habits and tools without the training to use them fairly and appropriately, with disastrous consequences.

But taking a step back, this was also a somewhat unexpected failure mode of the internet. Despite schoolteachers’ warnings against it, Wikipedia itself is still fairly reliable (citation needed) and hasn’t descended into endless partisan edit wars at least as far as I can tell. And people still visit it a lot; Wikipedia ranks 5th on Alexa after Google, YouTube, Facebook and Baidu. The problem isn’t that the promising aspects of the internet have been overrun or underutilized.

As I said earlier, I don’t really have an answer, but for future discussion, maybe it will be helpful to clearly formulate my question.

Access to reliably accurate information has been increasing rapidly throughout this Century. Yet rather than bringing us all together, we’ve seen a further widening of political divides, partisan animus, and elected a president who repeatedly blatantly lies. These two trends seem in direct contradiction — how have both occurred at the same time?

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