Even as digital technology provides more information, allowing instantaneous access and sharing, people struggle to synthesize that information and form a common understanding of reality, said author and scholar Michael Patrick Lynch.
“Just because access to information is easier doesn’t mean that information is more accurate or meaningful,” Lynch told a large Franklin & Marshall crowd. “In fact, it may be that the easier the access to information, the harder it is to assess its accuracy and importance. So, we know more, but understand less.”
Lynch discussed “Common Reality and Our Digital Lives” at the College’s Sept. 21 Common Hour, a community conversation scheduled every Thursday classes are in session.
Lynch is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, where he directs the university’s Humanities Institute. He the author or editor of seven books, including “True to Life,” a New York Times Sunday Book Review Editor’s pick, and has lectured widely, speaking at TEDx, South by Southwest and Chautauqua. He also frequently contributes to the Times’ blog, “The Stone.”
Lynch said the internet was initially envisioned as “the great democratizer of knowledge,” but has become so technologically efficient that it instead has fractured our common reality.
“I describe it as ‘the internet of us.’ It has become such an integral part of our lives that we view access as one small step from thinking,” he said. “But as Google, Facebook and the like have tracked our searches and analyzed our posts and comments, they continue to provide us with similar content, which inflates our information bubbles instead of bursting them. So our society is not only polarized about our values, but also about our facts--what is true and significant and what is not.”
Lynch suggested that solving that problem starts by reconnecting with a basic philosophical truth: that there is a common reality we all share. He also suggested embracing several concepts to arrive at that common reality, the first being a fundamental belief in the truth.
“This concept is under attack today,” he noted. “Wrapped up in all the discussion about fake news and alternative facts is a philosophy that dates back to ancient Greece. It says that we can never escape our individual perspective, our particular worldview. So there is no objective, shared truth and even if such a thing exists, it doesn’t matter. My problem with that, is that skepticism about objective truth inevitably leads to despotism. History shows us that democracies cannot thrive without vigorous debate and a shared, common reality. We can’t speak truth to power if the power tells us what is truth--whether that power is a politician or this little oracle of a smartphone we carry around in our pockets.”
Lynch cited another concept based the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s challenge, “Dare to know for yourself.”
“We often don’t question the knowledge we receive; we don’t challenge it, reach a deeper understanding and make it our own,” Lynch said. “How often does a question come up among your group and you all race to your phones to do a Google search instead of continuing the discussion? And what happens when we do that Google search? We access a prepackaged set of facts that has been determined by an algorithm, and then we share it digitally, usually via social media. It’s a knowledge assembly line; we don’t examine or test the contents. Sometimes we don’t even bother to open the package. We need to be much more active in our search for knowledge, by reading books that challenge us, by discussion and debate with people not like us.”