Serfing the net

At the risk of being branded a Luddite, I find it astonishing that many people can have a grasp of IT gadgets but absolutely no practical, political, geographical, scientific or historical knowledge of the real world – or any ability to think beyond how to achieve short term personal gain. It almost seems like the greater the deficiency in the latter, the more time they spend on their cell phones. Which, when you think about it, goes against all the popular arguments for adopting internitwittery.

For example, when my better half asked a teacher why kids never learn the names of capital cities or major planets any more, she was told “Oh, they can look all that up on the internet”. Except that they don’t and, even if they did, it doesn’t become useful information retained at the back of their minds to be pulled out, say, while writing a GCSE essay during an exam.

I also see this at work when, for example, we need to get a document legalised by a foreign government. The young teccies will put an organisation name or town from a document into Google, then give up when no handy contact details show up and pass the problem to the office dinosaur.

They cannot relate the name or town to a country, or understand the political situation in that country and know there might be this restriction or that practice. They barely understand that countries have embassies in other countries, or that certain countries do not deal openly with certain other countries (e.g. Israel and Iran) and so blacklist individuals or business organisations who do.

I first started noticing the phenomena during the mid-1990’s, when few of my uni or professional friends had mobile phones but every unemployable seemed to be jabbering away non-stop on the buses I took between the many agency gigs I held down while waiting for a proper job to appear.

When I went to Central Europe to work, it was even more noticeable that gypsies and street people all had cell phones. Meanwhile the university which employed me had no direct phone line to the department, and was only just getting to grips with e-mail or the internet (at a time when such wizardry was still dominated by academic networks).

I dubbed such folk techno-peasants and thought that, with time, they would be sidelined as the true potential of the technology was realised. Now I seriously wonder if that potential was being realised all the time, and that it was to drag us all back to the middle ages.

What seems to be happening is almost the reverse of the invention of print, when the Bible stopped being chained to the lectern in the cathedral, there to be read and interpreted only by the all powerful priest to illiterate serfs. Now the new technology itself, instead of freeing us to communicate while bypassing the powerful, seems only to chain the users themselves to the lectern.

Most of the vast potential content is not read, understood or debated. The memes spread only folk myths or outright lies. Without enough understanding to map their way to better information the serfs get more and more scared of a big, bad world and retreat to smaller and smaller villages, populated mainly by frightened idiots. In addition, the way in which everyone’s surfing record is tracked, then used to direct only less and less challenging content to phones and PCs, makes such techno-peasants ever more malleable by tyrants and robber barons.

The answer, I think, is not to abandon the grid but to use it warily, and in a better informed way. Paradoxically, as even major book-chains narrow their range of books, we are more likely to find such information in charity shops and old school public libraries.

Switch off your cell phone. Leave your laptop or tablet at home. Just pick up any book – the older and dustier the better. Read it, think about it, make written notes and queries. Follow them up. Read some more, note some more, question some more.

And only then go back online and start making some informed enquiries.

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