At the end of the 1980’s people began to herald the coming of a new age in human history, one that was based not on metal or manufacturing, but on ideas alone. By the early 90’s people had accepted that this new era had come and had dubbed it “The Information Age.”
We now know that those early forecasts were entirely correct. In 30 years we have gone from newspapers and books to blogs and Kindles. Who but sci-fi writers would have predicted that paper maps would be now virtually useless and things like land-line phones, music you buy in a store, and even most wires might soon follow. But changes in technology aren’t really what is most striking in this new era. Technology is always assumed to be advancing, yet major changes in the way people interact and commerce is done has been completely revolutionized.
But I don’t need to go on and on about the changes of the Information Age. This isn’t in question, nor is it the scope of this post.
What does seem to be noteworthy, is that I believed that there has been a major chapter change in this societal tome. The zeitgeist of the Information Age or IA (because I am sick of typing this out) was that Information could be a commodity itself. In fact, information itself could prove to be a more important commodity in many ways than even brick and steel. Information can be used as a weapon. The lack of information can be at times more significant than the information itself. Whole companies, like Microsoft, are based on commoditizing information.
As the 90’s waned, the idea of piracy became very mainstreamed. It seems that the creation of the MP3 was really the tide changer in this. As people realized that they could get music for free over the Internet, we all somehow forgot that this had ethical implications. Okay, we didn’t forget, we willed our own amnesia. I remember saying upon receiving my first CD burner, “Aha, I will never pay for music again!” I’m not proud of this, but it happened.
This was the last page of Chapter 1 of the IA. The next page introduced the Free Information Age (FIA). As people switched to the idea of free music, this lead to actual philosophizing about the nature of information ownership. Who “owned” music? Was it the artist, the record company? The CEO of the record company? When you bought a CD, did you now own the music that was on it? The record companies came up with their take on all this–that you actually only owned the “right to listen to the music” on your CD. Copyright law has still not been settled on this matter.
But the striking aspect of this is not what it has done to information media or even legal aspects of copyright. It has lead to a much larger free market of ideas and information in general. The publishing company Conde Nast just announced last week that they are going to discontinue 3 of their major magazines in the coming months. Other major magazines and newspapers have already gone down.
You might think that this has all led to a decrease in publishing, but the opposite is entirely true. In fact, the volume of publication (in general) has exponentially been increasing. It is the locus of this information that has changed. While the MSM (a common acronym for the “Mainstream Media” referring to what has long been considered the source of reputable information) has been in decline, blogging, podcasting, and even alternative print has been spreading like wildfire.
Information is now not coming mostly from sources that the publishing houses have authorized, but from individuals who simply have been democratically given a louder pulpit. It is information capitalism at work. In some sense it is very beautiful. Penguin Trade Paper is no longer the vetter of what we get to know, the market itself is.
Along with this comes checks and balances. The Iranians conducted a missile test last year and widely publicized a photo of the test.
The photo shows 4 missiles being fired in a sign that the Iranians are not to be trifled with. The story was carried along with the image to your left, in all of the major wire services. The problem was that it was a fake. This and images like it have even spawned a new term, fauxtography.
As this came out, bloggers, and netizens examined the story in detail, and began to notice some problems with the imagery. It didn’t help the Iranian cause that the administration wasn’t seen as trustworthy to begin with.
The image on the right is that as examined by the Internet community. It represents areas that netizens found to be cloned (reproduced from other areas of the picture). Finally, an image was found that was determined to be the original, an image that showed only one missile being launched.
The Iranian government realized that one missile being launched in the desert was not particularly intimidating, but four missiles was terrifying. In the end, the message that was heard by the world was that the Iranians felt inferior and weak, and therefore had to fake being strong and intimidating. This case showed the information community to be quite capable of rejecting information that was fraudulent. It also showed that even though the spigot of information was wide open, that did not mean that all information would be accepted.
However, giving everyone a microphone is not always a good thing. The spread of urban myths and disinformation has also become epidemic. Less than a year after the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks theories spread out of the Muslim world accusing the Bush administration of orchestrating the attacks in order to invade Muslim lands. All of these theories (including those that implicated Israel and Jews) have been thoroughly debunked by various unbiased authorities. A book was even written by the editors of Popular Science magazine scientifically debunking these myths.
Yet, these ideas have only grown. They have spread through Internet memes that take advantage of people either too ignorant or lazy to research the truth (i.e. “fire cannot melt steel), or purposefully intent on spreading propaganda (i.e. “thousands of Jews called in sick in New York on 9/11”). What should have easily been discounted as ridiculous by netizens has only grown.
The one factor that links these two issues is that the Free Information Age has brought about a skepticism of information, and an assumption of conspiracies. People now operate more under the assumption that all information is disinformation until proved otherwise. This has enormous implications for the Church. More on that later. –Ryan