Posts Tagged ‘Internet’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Thesis: Ignorance is bliss.

Antithesis: Knowledge is power.

Disturbing Synthesis: A little knowledge and a lot of ignorance is damn frightening.

The first two statements are cliches..  But, as with all cliches, there is a great deal of truth to them. What I am finding is that the third statement, though not as pithy or memorable, is no less true.  It seems like everywhere in America today, this disturbing synthesis is prevalent. The latest example is popular, and popularly misguided reactions to the ebola outbreak.

Those who are completely ignorant of ebola are not necessarily problematic. Approach them on the street and ask about the disease, and you may get blank stares and a shrug of the shoulders.  They have no worries; no concerns; no 291933-ebola-virusknowledge.  Honestly, the vast majority of Americans will never be affected by ebola, and so is it really surprising that our notoriously narcissistic selves may simply say, ‘who cares’?  Many of the ignorant may be callous, a great deal may be apathetic, but they are not dangerous.

The antithesis of this state is knowledge. An understanding of how the disease transmits, what it does to those affected, and how likely it is to spread is necessary. A realization that help should be sent to Africa is nobly knowledgeable.  Those with knowledge appreciate that there are much greater worries in this world than the highly unlikely chance of catching ebola. Knowledge, and its offspring perspective, allows an American to realize the food we put in our mouths poses a much greater threat to our health than any hemorrhagic fever.  Nonetheless, the informed American appreciates the power, and horror of disease, and the necessity of containment.  In our globalized age, a disease affecting Africa may not reach us personally, but the social revolutions, economic catastrophes, and military strife that may come as a result of the disease very well could.  Being an isolationist is not an option when it comes to fighting microbes.  Paradoxically, being self-centered should lead to a concern for the other.

It is the last, the synthesis, that should keep us up at night; it is the synthesis that must be fought against.  The happy medium between knowledge and ignorance is not all that happy, but it is disturbingly easy to come by.  Google, 24 hours news, and social media are the pushers of spin, sensationalism, conspiracies and half-truths.  The American people are the addicts.

Ebola-is-realIn a perfect world, Google allows us to find ‘truth’ in a simple easily structured search format. If you ‘google’ ebola, you will get articles from the WHO, the CDC, and the BBC.  But, accidently put an ‘h’ after ebola, and the logarithm used by the website offers you the opportunity to search ‘Ebola Hoax’.  Search that, and you start to fall down the rabbit hole.

I got a glimpse of this the other day. Riding home on the train, four adults, seemingly sane, began to discuss ebola.  There were the typical concerns and questions.  Some of the claims made were incorrect; the disease has not killed 30,000 in Africa, even though this train rider stated it was fact.  But soon things got out of hand.  One of the men shouted that ebola was actually created by the government; he stated that it was categorically true that ebola has been patented and that the government is controlling the disease.  How did he propose to prove this shocking revelation? He said to his friend, ‘give me your phone, and let me ‘Google’ it. I’ll show you!’

The tools for finding information are there for us to use.  They have the capability to provide anyone and everyone with the power of knowledge. Absolute ignorance is now, more often than not, a choice.  The problem seems to be that most people choose to collect only snippets of knowledge.  A ’30 second’ blurb here; a meme there.  Throw in a facebook status posted by a friend with some strange conspiratorial theories, and the synthesis of ignorance and knowledge is off to the races.  Though sprinting away from ignorance, we’re too often stopping far short of knowledge.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

A disturbing story out of California grabbed my eye last week.  In the town of Rialto, just outside Los Angeles, a school board caught flack for an 8th grade assignment asking students “to debate in writing whether the Holocaust was ‘merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain’, or an actual historical event.  Facing harsh criticism, the board initially defended the assignment, saying it was a way for students to

The 8th grade assignment in question.

The 8th grade assignment in question.

evaluate evidence, and to use ‘critical thinking’ skills.   The schoolboard finally apologized for it’s poor judgement as news spread that the language used in the assignment had actually been lifted from a ‘revisionist’ website.  In the realm of Holocaust studies, ‘revisionism’ is a euphemism coined by anti-Semites and Neo-Nazis for Holocaust denial.  After such an embarrassing revelation, apologies are now flying, and amends are being made.  On Monday, the LA Times reported that the eighth grade teachers who oversaw the assignments will be going through mandatory sensitivity training, including a trip to the Museum of Tolerance.  Hopefully, the physical evidence of the Nazis’ war on the Jews displayed at the museum will illustrate to the teachers why the assignment was a horribly distasteful mistake.

Case closed?

Not quite. This story is about much more than an 8th grade assignment.  There are troubling implications here.

But first, let’s make one thing clear: I don’t think the schoolboard is run by Holocaust deniers, or Neo-Nazis. As the Anti-Defamation League stated, it seems this case is not a sign of a “larger, insidious agenda.” Instead, this is an instance of a group of people making an incredibly bad, misinformed decision.  No evil here; just banal ignorance. But, the banality of the ignorance points to the disturbance. This assignment was intended to be an attempt to get students to use ‘critical thinking skills.’  Critical thinking is a buzzword in today’s world of education. It has nothing but positive connotations, and rightly so.  But, here we see a danger.  Critical thinking skills can only be developed if we can critically recognize when thought and arguments deserve criticism. Not so simply put, we can’t be critical thinkers when we don’t have critical thoughts to critique. To recognize what stances deserve critical assessment, we need to identify what is worthy of discussion, and what is not. There are simply some opinions that are not worth hearing.  

The Rialto school board was ignorant.  They were ignorant that not all thoughts should be critically assessed, and they were even more ignorant of history. They simply took two seemingly disparate views, and told students to analyze them.  After all, to the school board, the ‘revisionist’ website used the language of a critically thought out position. It ‘seemed’ historically sound, which is exactly what the ‘revisionists’ intend. Holocaust deniers want to take advantage of such ignorance; when they do, they win the battle, and help destroy history.  

The other especially disturbing aspect of this story is the method the board used to get  information.  As mentioned, the assignment was taken almost directly from a Holocaust denial website.  The board’s ignorance is chilling, but it becomes dangerous when combined with the accessibility of extreme lies in cyberspace.  Now, I am not a luddite. The internet has  radically altered communication, and accessibility to information largely for the better. But the internet does not separate the noble from the vile. Extreme hate has found a new home on the web.

Teaching my Holocaust course, I realize this, and point out to my students to be cautious when doing research online.  There is a huge array of radical hatred that could be stumbled upon by them unwittingly as they

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda poster found in search.

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda poster found in search.

search out for the answers to assignments in class.  Let me just give you an example how easy this is: If I Google image search ‘Nazi Jewish Propaganda’, I get over 6 million hits.  Most images come from the holdings of Yad Vashem, or the U.S. Holocaust Museum, or some other reputable memorial institution.  But, the image search also can bring me to other, more troubling sites. The 11th image retrieved in this particular search is of a Nazi anti-Semitic poster produced during the Second World War.  If I click on the image, I see that it comes from a page called ‘Zion Crime Factory.’  The small caption to this image states, “Hitler, like Goebbels, understood the reality of Jewish warmongering against the Reich…‘ What we have here is a modern anti-Semitic, perhaps Neo-Nazi site utilizing Nazi propaganda, not to illuminate Nazi persecution of Jews, but to illustrate that the Nazis were actually correct in their persecution.  If my students were looking for propaganda for one of my assignments, they may accidentally stumble upon this site.  Hopefully they would recognize this site for what it was and avoid it like the plague. But, what about all those who had never studied the Holocaust before, and don’t know what they are looking at?

What about 8th graders researching a critical thinking assignment?

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other night, my wife and many of her Facebook ‘friends’ had a back and forth about a link she shared.  The bone of contention was one of those ubiquitous internet ‘lists’. You know the kind.  ‘The 50 best cat memes’, or the ’36 best Presidents’, or, in this case, the ’32 Books that will change your life’.

What is it about the internet’s insatiable love of lists?  In the realm of book lists alone, anonymous internet patrons proclaim what ‘books to read before you die’; or which ‘books you need to read before 30’; or simply, ‘The Greatest Books of All Time”.  At the very least, these lists spark discussion, as proven by the good-natured argument had by my wife and her social media buds about this particular ‘Buzzfeed’ biblio-litany.  Most of their discussion centered upon what books should be on the list, and what books didn’t deserve such praiseworthy recognition.  Each participant added his or her own ‘how could this book be missing from such a list’ selection.

I, myself, had another query after glancing at the list in question.  Why, oh why, do such lists focus so exclusively upon that most recent literary invention, appropriately termed the novel?  Where are the books that will change your life not in the novelistic form?  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good novel as much as the next bibliophile, but why do these lists ignore any mention of other types of books? If we are talking about books that ‘change your life’, or you ‘should read before you die’, shouldn’t there be at least the hint of philosophy?  Of Religion?  Perhaps, even the-republichistory?

Well, have no fear.  I will solve this list shortage with yet another list.   Here is just a sampling of works,  none novels, that should be read before you die; or that should be read before you 61Kvp0zgD6Lare 40; or that can change your life. Feel free to ignore my suggestions, and/or tell me what I missed.

  • The Republic by Plato – This may seem daunting, but most every argument crucial to Western philosophy gets it start right here.  Politics, morality, religion, social structure?  It’s all in there.
  • The Bible –  To understand our world, and the viewpoints of so many, read it from cover to cover.  Sure, there are moments in Deuteronomy and Leviticus that can get a bit long, but you can make it.federalist
  • The Works of Mencius – You may be saying to yourself ‘who’, not recognizing the name of one of the great Ancient Chinese philosophers. But, if you pick up his works, you will find an incredibly warm, and positive investigation of human nature.
  • 9781844678761_Communist-manifesto (1)Japanese Love Poems of the 10th Century – Again, this sounds arcane, but the poetry written during Japan’s Heien era is some of the most straightforwardly beautiful poetry around.  It is easy to fall in love with, pun notwithstanding.
  • The Federalist by Madison, Hamilton and Jay – Want to understand American politics? Here is where you need to start.
  • The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels – See what all the fuss is about.
  • download (2)Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin – Specifically, book lovers should check out his “Unpacking My Library”. With_the_Old_Breed_(Eugene_B._Sledge_book_-_cover_art)Cultural critics should delve into his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” for something a little less light.
  • With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge –   Sledge’s classic understated chronicle of his experiences during the World War 2 in the Pacific will make you question if there can be such a thing as a “Good War”.
  • foot2The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich – Still the standard introduction to art history.  Perfect for a college classroom, or for a relaxing read.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman – A groundbreaking work that combines the art of graphic novels with an Mausautobiographical memoir of the Holocaust.
  • 2943781Descartes’ Baby by Paul Bloom – Bloom is a Yale psychologist who studies infant behavior and development.  I think every page of this book had me shaking my head in amazement.  It opened my eyes to the incredible world of children’s minds.

So, there you have it.  A quickly constructed list of highly recommended non-novels.

Now, go argue about it on Facebook.  Or, Tumblr.  Or, wherever.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

(This post follows somewhat thematically with the wonderful posts written this week by Michael Stelzer Jocks and Tricia Lunt. Read those, too!)

The first time I heard of the internet was in the early 1990s while my family was at the Rosemont Convention Center. My parents were at a Pet Expo on the main floor, and my older brother and I sneaked upstairs to a small computer show.

My 8-year-old brain didn’t retain much from that afternoon, except a foggy memory of standing still and listening intently to a “grown up” (who was probably 23) tell us about this amazing computer program called Prodigy that allowed people to do amazing things like order items from Service Merchandise. My mind was absolutely blown. I could now order a blender, a vacuum cleaner, and a Phillips CD-i without leaving my bedroom!

I linked out to info on “Prodigy,” “Service Merchandise,” and “Phillips CD-i” for everyone under 30.

I linked out to info on “Prodigy,” “Service Merchandise,” and “Phillips CD-i” for everyone under 30.

Twenty-three years later, this internet thing has really caught on! It’s WAY more than just a fancy alternative to mail order catalogs. And forget being “home” for internet access; lots of us have the internet in the palm of our hands – literally – with smartphones.

The extraordinary advancements in computers and mobile technology make me proud of human ingenuity and I’m giddy to see what technology will come next.

But then there are days like yesterday, when I was stuck in traffic for three hours, that I start to lose faith in humankind’s collective ability to be, ya know, smart n’ stuff.

My drive to work on a normal day takes about 50 minutes. A wee bit long, but not unreasonable. However, yesterday, rain coupled with car accidents turned I-57 and I-94 heading into Chicago into a stream of idle metal boxes. Rather than arrive an hour early to work, as planned, I arrived an hour late.

traffic2

Like all people, traffic makes me angry. I’m angry at whoever caused the accident. I’m angry at all the other people around me for clogging the road by deciding they should also go to work today. I’m angry at myself for not clairvoyantly predicting this dilemma and setting out from home even earlier than I did.

On top of all of that, I’m angry at us humans, because whenever I’m stuck in traffic staring at a sea of brake lights, I always think the same thing: We’ve got to be able to do better than this.

Ford Model T

Ford Model T

Automobiles have been around for nearly 130 years, and started becoming common over 100 years ago with the Ford Model T. A century later, we’re still driving around – sticking it out to the bitter, expensive, polluting, trafficky end. Sure, cars have improved, but they’re still cars. This is humankind’s brilliant solution to the simple problem of how to get from Point A to Point B: sit on top of four wheels and roll around slowly and inefficiently.

There has to be a better answer.

In the early 2000s, I overheard two of my college professors discussing this secret project that was in the news. Apparently, this project was for a new invention that would revolution transportation. I did some research, but everything about the project was kept extraordinarily quiet, except the deafening buzz surrounding the product’s unveiling. I imagined it could be the flying car, or personal spaceships, or teleportation. But what was it?

The Segway.

11 1/2 out of 13 people agree that it's possible to raise both hands while riding a Segway.

11 1/2 out of 13 tourists agree that it’s possible to raise both hands while riding a Segway.

Oh how revolutionary it is! Now tourists can take “walking” tours at 1.5x their normal speed! And mall cops can glide effortlessly between Auntie Anne’s and Mrs. Fields, all while striking two-wheeled terror into the hearts of the restless, mall-roaming youths.

But, I suppose I should at least give credit to the Segway for being something slightly different, because therein lies the true difficulty in creativity and innovation: nobody has thought of it yet. It’s easy to propose changes to what currently exists: make cars and trains and planes faster, make their fuel cleaner, make them more comfortable. Build bigger roads, build better rails. All of that may help, and all of it may improve our situation, but none of it is the ultimate answer to transportation. Inventing an ultimate answer from scratch – on any issue – is much more difficult.

Nonetheless, how is it that we can go from Prodigy to iPhones in under a quarter-century, but have been stuck with cars for more than a century? We humans are capable of such magnificent ingenuity, and yet simultaneously, we can be so creatively bankrupt as to accept never-ending brake lights as a solution to anything other than how to raise someone’s blood pressure.

C’mon, humanity. We’re smarter than this. We’ve got to be able to do better.

I hope.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Folks, brace yourself.  I’m going to make a statement that will blow your mind.  The internet is revolutionary! BOOM!…In reality,we all understand that the internet has, and is, radically transforming our lives. Information transmission, social networking,  international trade, finding significant others; the internet has changed these central aspects of  human experience.  For some cultural commentators, the internet is the best thing that has ever happened to humankind; for others, it is absolutely the worst.  But, there is no denying on either side that it is here to stay, and it is only going to become more transformational as years go by.

A couple weeks ago, Peter Stern and I were having a discussion about the internet’s effect on film.  Peter asked me my thoughts on streaming movies and television shows. I let him know that I have Netflix streaming, and I generally enjoy the service, save a few annoyances.  For instance, I can’t stand Netflix’s 5 star-rating system, and yet, I have a hard time ignoring it.  After pondering what bothered me so much about this rating system, I realized it is indicative of a larger dangerous trend that the internet has brought about: the digitalization of viva voce, or word of mouth.

The internet is radically democratic.  This is the best and the worst thing about it. Anyone can write anything.  Information is ubiquitous and generally free.  Such a radical democratic nature seems wonderful, but it becomes troubling images (11)when it is combined with two other calling-cards of the internet: user anonymity, and instantaneous info transmission.  Behind a relative veil of secrecy, any person can state a crude, uninformed, ridiculous opinion, and, on the web, it can flourish. Often, the loudest, most sensationalist ideas prevail over more reasoned argument. This is obvious in the political realm, where a man like Alex Jones can spread his lunacy far beyond what might be expected because of tools such as youtube and twitter.  Digital word of mouth politics is often based upon hearsay and conspiratorial theory.

However, the digitalization of word of mouth goes far beyond fringe politics.  This novel form of communication influences anyone who buys, sells, or watches goods and entertainment on the web: In other words, almost everyone with a computer. Of course, prior to its digitalization, word of mouth had historically been central to entertainment and consumption.  The great change with digitalization is the user anonymity mentioned previously.  Traditional spoken word of mouth is based upon trust and understanding between two people. If your best friend, who has a great sense of the hippest new music, tells you how great an artist is, what do you do?  Likely, listen to the friend and check out the artist.  Or, imagine if your uncle with an incredible palate tells you about how poor the food is at the neighborhood’s new restaurant. What do you do?  Probably avoid the place.  Viva voce has always been influential in the decision-making process because it is based upon mutual respect and understanding between two consensual parties. Word of mouth traditionally empowered an individual by helping him/her make an informed decision.

By digitalizing word of mouth, the internet has greatly increased the quantity of viva voce, but at the cost of quality.  Though the star rating system is obviously simplistic, it is quantifiably influential. It is hard to look past 300 separate itunes reviewers panning the album your friend told you was great, or 100 yelp reviewers giving that neighborhood restaurant 5 stars that your uncle hated.  Such is the power of peer pressure that I inevitably take into account when a book I want has only 3 of 5 stars on Amazon. Of course, sites such as Amazon, Netflix or Yelp don’t depend only on the star-rating system; they also want to provide supposedly qualitative digital word of mouth by providing comment sections for the user.  Ironically, such attempts at qualitative digital word of mouth also fail since comment sections often illustrate the absurdity and humor of anonymous viva voce. To see what I mean, check out this video.

Though silly, I think we should not look past the upsetting nature of the original critic’s message. The actual reviewer was practicing nothing short of reputation assassination; he provided an unjust assessment of a restaurant based upon what most people would consider absurd standards. Nonetheless, in the quantitative realm, his ridiculous review carries the same weight as a fair critique of  the restaurant.  Such anonymous, word of mouth ‘hit and runs’ are standard fare today. Arguably the oddest example of such smear tactics occurred in England in 2010, when a famous historian of Russia named Orlando Figes anonymously wrote a vicious Amazon.com critique of his fellow historian Robert Conquest’s most recent work.  Figes did this in an attempt to stop consumers from buying Conquest’s work.  By doing this, Figes illustrated the absurd downside of digital viva voce.  The anonymous critic now holds a position of far-reaching power, and that power is corrupting.