Law in the Internet Society

Ignorance Will Outlive Us All

By BreeThompson - 04 Nov 2016


Eliminating ignorance obviously requires access to information, and providing this access is a necessary first step for bettering society. People clearly can not be expected to know that which they had no opportunity to learn. However, this access will not necessarily reduce ignorance immediately or even eventually. Reducing ignorance requires people to be open to new information that may contradict their beliefs and more fundamentally to see a value in knowledge acquisition. Currently, the internet contains not only all of human knowledge, but also a substantial number of conspiracy theories, overly subtle satire, and outright lies. Given what we know about confirmation bias, it seems overly optimistic to assume that merely presenting people with all the content that exists, individuals will be able to teach themselves to discern between fact and fiction or train themselves to seek truth instead of comfort. The current state of web engagement shows how easily either of those can fail.

Echo Chambers

Recently, the Wall Street Journal began offering a Facebook feed that demonstrated how political leanings could alter what information is presented in “Blue Feed, Red Feed”. This interactive shows which news sites are most prevalent among partisans— there is very little overlap. This is reflective of a wider trend of polarization causing people to increasingly turn to sources and facts that align with their beliefs and surround themselves with people who believe (and behave?) similarly. A Pew study reveals that almost half (48%) of all respondents accessed political news from Facebook, and that individuals who are the most partisan have the most friends who share their views. Furthermore, half of all voters live in a county that was won in a landslide, a number that has increased since 1992. If these trends are representative, access— which has increased to 87% in 2014 from 14% in 1995— appears to increase a person’s ability to isolate themselves and not confront the information that would reduce their ignorance— without even realizing it. If not, then perhaps certain ideologues are an irreducible bastion of ignorance. In either case, ignorance persists.

Consider an extreme version of this: the alt-right. Up until this year, it seemed that the alt-right was primarily an internet phenomenon, growing on message boards, thriving in the comments, and generating propaganda/memes. Now it has burst forth fully formed armed with an arsenal of misinformation exalted as fact. While I grant that many if not most of those who ascribe to their beliefs are luxuriating in willful ignorance, I imagine that at least some (perhaps just one) of them is simply in too deep to escape the pull confirmation bias and human nature generally. Nonetheless, if access to the internet can foster this sort of pseudo-intellectual movement that is easily and quickly refuted by even a basic ability to compare sources and weigh their credibility can thrive and create barriers to correct information for themselves and unlucky, naive wanderers, then access is indifferent to knowledge.

Opium Dens

Apart from political echo chambers, various reports suggest that adult users of the internet spend between a fifth and a quarter of their time on social media. Half of the top 10 websites in the United States are social media platforms. Not only are people seeking out false facts, but they are also seeking out pure entertainment and doing each instead of contributing to our knowledge through discovery and contributing to society by acquiring the knowledge that already exists. However, it is hard to blame them, if we truly are walking around with all current knowledge in our pockets, there is little incentive to move that information up to our brains especially when Netflix and Hulu create original content. Almost 70% of people waste time at work. The facts are there when we need them regardless of whether an individual takes the time to learn it or whether they look it up in their moment of need. That is, in a manner of speaking, access to the internet is in itself “knowledge acquisition.” Access alone will not provide the necessary motivation to learn something before it is immediately necessary.


The average American internet user as well as those who are more extreme have access to the whole of human knowledge, and yet choose to read, share, and defend posts that confirm their beliefs about what the facts are or choose to avoid dealing with facts altogether and consume “content” instead. These should be accepted as likely results of a populace that has access to the internet. Obviously this is not to argue against access, but merely to suggest a more realistic picture. Even with the outsized influence given to important thinkers, the possibility that ignorance--especially the willful form, will destroy them is not impossible. If fake news can lead a man to shoot up a pizza parlor, it doesn't seem a big jump to think that it could lead a nation to war or to censorship of some ideas either of which would impede or stop progress. Access itself is progress neutral.

Certainly some people use “the Internet” in the ways that you’ve described (seeking out false facts to confirm their own beliefs, and consuming content), but that doesn’t mean that giving other people access to the same wealth of information that we have access to won’t lead to an “ignorance free society”. I think that the idea of an ignorance free society is more about ensuring that no one is “ignorant” because of their circumstances (poverty & lack of access to information) and less about making sure that no one is willfully ignorant. There will always be people who choose to remain willfully ignorant, but they probably should not be our focus. We should be more concerned with the people who want to learn, people with untapped potential, who are barred from realizing that potential because they have no access to the things they want to study. I think that this is perhaps what Eben meant when he wrote about "a world in which every Einstein is allowed to learn physics, regardless of whether she is rich or poor". Also, on the issue of content, surely some of the people who consume “pure entertainment”, will also occasionally decide to access some of the more educational resources available through net access. (Most college students in the U.S. are good examples of this…). Even if, after providing everyone with access to the net, some people choose to exclusively consume entertaining or smutty content, I wouldn’t call this “progress neutral”, because even if 90% of people behaved this way, it would still be worth it to give the remaining 10% access to the things that they wanted to learn about. Finally, there is a sort of paternalistic element here that I’m hesitant to address… but as people who have benefitted immensely from having net access it seems a bit disturbing to me that we find it morally acceptable to deny a large portion of the human race access to the sum of human knowledge accessible to us through the use of technology. This is particularly disturbing when you consider that access could be given to them at little to no cost to us. It almost seems as if we are trying to intentionally keep millions of people ignorant, which sort of reminds me of this ... but I digress.

-- WhitneyLee - 24 Nov 2016

These are two sides of a dialog I've listened to, and sometimes been in, in many places around the world. Sometimes it helps to define "ignorance" precisely, as conscious deprivation of learning. Someone who is ignorant in this sense knows that she is illiterate, and wants to learn to read, for example. Some people also know that in addition to being deprived of learning they are intelligent: they are conscious of having minds that want to grow and are being starved.

Intentional ignorance, persistence in not wanting to learn, could by this approach be called "stupidity," but that produces judgmentality that isn't desirable.

It is correct that many people given opportunities to learn will be easily distracted by activity that substitutes for learning. Probably this trait is expressed in the preponderant majority of humankind. Every human being can learn, some better than others. But a few human beings enjoy learning particularly, are markedly good at some aspects of learning, and are determined not to be deprived. Exposing those people to anything they want to learn without regard to their economic or social circumstances will alter the social life of the rest of humankind, notwithstanding the ratio of such learners and thinkers, because culture immensely amplifies their value to the rest of humanity, as it has been doing since the onset of complex articulate speech, probably some 200,000 years ago.

I think the dialog is a useful stage in forming a different thought, by explaining two aspects of a complex phenomenon. I think the next draft here should be very much improved by going through, and perhaps coming out the other end, of the apparent opposition.



Webs Webs

r6 - 10 Dec 2016 - 01:19:15 - BreeThompson
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