Truth and Technology

Mark Twain may have been right in saying that a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on, but he predated the Internet. Now a lie can make it before truth gets them out of the closet.

In our age of instant information retrieval, rumors spawn like rabbits on Viagra. Some are started intentionally, like the alleged anti-Muslim video link to violence in Benghazi. This kind of rumor is often politically useful, but its usefulness is circumscribed by the length of time it is believed by a significant number of people. The video-caused-Benghazi rumor lasted about as long as Jello in a crock pot, no doubt to the chagrin of whoever started it. A few years ago, this kind of nonsense would have taken months to clear up and its nefarious purpose would have been served before anyone knew the difference.

Political lies may pop up faster and more frequently these days, but the Internet enables skeptical people to set the record straight with equal speed. That is, when it is allowed to operate without restraint.

North Korea is probably the best example of a totalitarian government left on the planet since Raul Castro started allowing a few people to travel. From what we can gather, North Koreans believe their leader is a god and is incapable of error.* About thirty seconds of cruising the Internet would divest them of that notion as they realized their leaders’ fifty-page Sexiest-Man-Alive spread in the Chinese People’s Daily was based on an article from the Onion. Of course, North Koreans will never get that opportunity because they don’t have access to the Internet. We’ll just have to enjoy the joke for them.

Kim Jong Un

North Korea serves to remind us of how hard technology has made it on tyrants. In order to sustain a system in which millions starve, street-corner merchants are punished for “profiteering,” and no one is allowed to criticize the government, absolute isolation is required. In the old days, that just meant controlling the newspapers. Now it means stifling something much less tangible–a system of disseminating information worldwide that no one in particular controls.

The Internet works because it developed largely free of government constraint. If there is a better example of how not to screw something up, I missed it. The mechanics of it are wonderful and near-unfathomable, but the purpose it serves politically and economically is worthy of worship. The Internet allows each of us to speak and trade with one another across distances and with speeds that render government a slow, goofy-looking bystander.

This has not set well with the world’s tyrants. The Chinese government may have embraced capitalism, but it still thinks that controlling the flow of information to its citizens is essential to political stability. In the process, it is making itself look stupid and ****ing off its people royally. Its leaders will pay, probably soon.

China is no surprise. Its history of political oppression is well-documented. Likewise Russia and any number of other countries that have not learned the lesson of freedom yet. The Internet has made it all but impossible to control information flow effectively within their own borders, so tyrants are seeking to control…I’m sorry…”regulate” the Internet internationally through the UN.

Fortunately, our government can be counted on to do the right thing once every few decades and sent a unanimous message last December to the UN to back off. The Internet is a threat to any and all who thrive by restricting access to information and must be controlled worldwide if it is to be controlled at all. They will try again, be sure of that. Let us hope the US remains true to its core principle of freedom of expression.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, monarchs and the Church were neither one pleased. Having regular people reading (horrors!) was sure to lead to trouble. It did–for them. Both monarchs and Popes found themselves relegated to the ceremonial as the common individual asserted his/her own rights. Education thrived and knowledge was no longer available to only the rich. Humanity became immeasurably better off because individuals gained access to knowledge that had previously been filtered by people in power.

And thus it is with the Internet. Just as tyrants were deposed when Enlightenment ideas spread, so Kim Jong Un will be run out on a rail as soon as more than about four people figure out what he is.** Same with the Chinese government. We may not have to actually deport members of Congress, but we can call their bluff on spending and Stand with Rand on the Constitutionality of domestic drones…in real time.

Like the first peasants who lovingly turned the pages of their new treasures, we too have been granted a miracle, a way to escape authority. Being exposed to the truth creates a new choice–whether to continue believing in superstition or embrace reason and whether to claim freedom or bow to those in power. We have the power to choose and the freedom to choose poorly. For every sound argument and established fact in cyberspace, there are a thousand lies and mistakes. For every lone voice asserting individual rights there are a thousand who would sacrifice the individual to the collective. Once we know the choice exists, we can never un-know it–we are forever changed, charged with the responsibility of accepting or rejecting our birthright of independence.

The rise of the Internet marks the fall of authority. A world in which the individual charts his/her destiny and blazes a trail in pursuit is ours to claim if only we will recognize it. The price? Intellectual and moral honesty. With virtually limitless amounts of information at our fingertips and fewer ways for others to limit our access, the burden is on us to use it wisely. We can choose freedom, reason, and prosperity or we can let others drag us backwards. A world of individuals figuring out how to best work together with minimal interference by others is waiting to be built. Let’s get to work.


*A tasteless blogger would liken them to Obama supporters, but not me.

**Hopefully, they’ll tell us–I am still scratching my head over that one.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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