Previously, I made the case that the majority of society suffers from an impulse to categorize the world when attempting to understand it, instead of actually thinking (see here). That is, we equate understanding things with categorizing them. This has a number of negative consequences including emboldening our biases.
If either I have sufficiently made this case to you or you’ve experienced it yourself and it’s already apparent to you, I’d now like to consider where this actually comes from. In particular, what kind of role might information technology play in this? I am by no means a luddite, but information technology is omnipresent in our lives and most would agree that it changes the way that we think or has the potential to.
Consider that we often want to understand the world around us very quickly. But real understanding of complex things in the world doesn’t come easily. You have to deal with ambiguity and the ache of actually thinking before you can get to understanding. Categoritis, as it were, allows us to feel like we understand the world very quickly by merely categorizing.
Now, consider how the Internet relates to this. If someone wants an answer to a factual question, all that they need to do is search on Google and it’s done in 20 seconds. That’s fair enough. BUT if you want an understanding of highly-complex and ambiguous issue, you can gain a feeling of really understanding it in a similarly short amount of time. I invite you to savor the novelty of that unsettling reality for another moment: we use the internet to feel like we understand something complex and ambiguous in the world virtually instantaneously. The implication of this would be that our ever-expanding desire for instant gratification has colonized our cognitive abilities.
If I am curious about a complex and ambiguous issue that is shaping the world we live in, I can find something that will allow me to feel like I understand it. That piece of content will meet me exactly where I am at in terms of my biases and personality. I can find an NY times Op-ed article from a prestigious columnist, I can pull up a clip on Youtube of Joe Rogan extrapolating the issue with a belligerent comedian, watch Tucker Carlson talk to Fabio about something outrageous, see hipsters on Vice news investigating the issue with an ironic panache, watch Sean Hannity terrify me about the world collapsing before our eyes — and I will certainly feel like I understand the issue at hand much better. Granted, I probably am closer to understanding the issue than I was before, BUT the key is that I feel like I have a real grasp of the issue now. And if you have this feeling, you will probably just stop there with your newly fashioned opinion and ignore the remaining uncertainties.
So, with the help of the internet and its powers to instantaneously give us a feeling of ‘understanding the world’, one gets accustomed to feeling like they can understand something complex instantaneously and begin to think that this is how things should be. If we feel that this instantaneous understanding is how it should be, we find ways to meet this expectation, namely, categorizing things rather than actually observing, listening, and thinking. If we do this, are we missing nuances to things that could otherwise be very important to actually understanding the world? Almost certainly.
And we see the consequences of this. One example would be the political divisions in the United States which are absolutely unprecedented in recent times. People in different groups can’t even conceive of seeing anything eye to eye because they are attached to their boxes they use to categorize the world and have an enormous amount of emotional investment in these ideas. When one person wants to get their quick fix of understanding, they read one guy, and when another wants to get their quick fix of understanding they watch soundbites of another guy, etc. It seems that deep divisions in society is the price we pay for our extreme arrogance to think that we can understand the complex world with such ease and lack of effort by tuning into bites of extrapolation and commentary.
So what is the alternative to all of this? What have we been missing as we’ve been feeding ourselves an illusion of understanding and, largely using the internet to do so?
This issue, in my view, is fundamentally about ordinary individuals claiming their independence and individuation in the world. Emerson interprets the matter perfectly when he says, “Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended upon this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy.” What are you or I losing when we invest so much of ourselves into such things? When we unwittingly invest our emotions into the views of others we get through the internet and mass media, we are divesting from our capacity for original thought. And it is the original thought of human beings that moves the world forward and always has been.
Originally published at comprehensophy.org on April 11, 2018.