Those who make a living analyzing our culture are sounding the alarm about a consequence of the internet that's both unintended and disturbing. The more we rely on our devices as we work, play, study and dream, the greater our problem with what Stephen Colbert might call truthiness. It's not so much that people don't tell the truth; it's that we're starting to forget what truth is. If you spend time around school-age children, you've probably witnessed it first-hand: the unexpected C on the history report, and the shrill sound of teen outrage: "but the internet said George Washington crossed the Delaware on a hovercraft!"
Arguing over facts is nothing new. "Did not; did so," is a theme as old as time, whether the fact in question is did sibling A take the last cookie, or did defendant B move money to an untraceable offshore account. To find the truth, we look for evidence: cookie crumbs in the sibling's bed; reference to the defendant in the Panama Papers. The evidence allows us to know. "I know for a fact...," we say when evidence exists for our claim.
But how much longer will this turn of phrase apply? In "The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less," author Michael P. Lynch writes: "Most knowing now is Google-knowing - knowledge acquired on the internet." Instead of researching, we download. We may still call it "research," but for the most part, it's not. If I was explaining the difference to the teenager with the C in history, this is what I'd say: to research something is to gather pieces of evidence from reliable sources, assembling a persuasive set of facts.
Note the elements of human endeavor in my definition of research: there's the gathering, which takes time. The exercise of critical thinking, to evaluate if the sources are reliable. The process of assessment, to measure persuasiveness. Yes, folks, I'm tattling on the digital revolution: the rapid accomplishment of tasks is not the key to our future. Just as fast food is yielding to slow food, and supermarket beer to micro-brewed, it's time to get artisanal about knowledge: #toknowtakeitslow. The search for truth isn't an inconvenient hold-over from the analogue era; it's core to who we are.
Don't get me wrong. As a technologist, I have infinite admiration for the impact of digital technology on our lives. Every mind-numbing, paper-devouring, human error-prone routine that's converted to an algorithm is an undeniable boon, whether to business, medical science or space exploration. But as a human being committed to preserving and enhancing the richness and authenticity of life on this planet, I draw the line at taking shortcuts to knowledge and truth. We owe our kids an honest accounting of technology, of its limitations as well as its gifts.
You might have noticed how impatient we've all gotten in the last couple of decades. Remember the sound of dial-up, when you couldn't access your AOL account till the shrieking subsided? Today, you would toss your laptop across the room if you had to count till ten to open your email. Our expectations have shifted; we're so adaptable it's alarming. That means a conscious, deliberate effort is required to recover our respect for knowledge and truth.
I'm going to start by cultivating patience. The next time I find myself drumming my fingers on the counter because the barista hasn't called my name yet, I'll study the steps she's taking to make my hot chocolate instead. The gathering: she combines the milk and the chocolate. The critical thinking: she figures out how long to steam it so it's just hot enough. The assessment: she measures out the chocolate sprinkles to give it that "flair". When she hands me the cup and I thank her, the smile I get is its own truth: the day we mechanize everything is the day we forget who we are.