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Thursday, July 28, 2011

The History of Technology and Communication - the Internet

At the end of the 20th century the internet changed communication again. Rather thank keeping the power and the message in the hands of the wealthy, the internet decentralized all of it. Examples like Wikipedia and Linux are proof that the masses can come together to create something that is both free and high quality.

Giving a voice to everyone with an internet connection hasn't destroyed the positions of power in the world. There are still publishing houses, newspapers, television networks and movie studios and they still command a huge portion of the eyes and ears in the world. But what the internet does is provide competition. CNN has to compete with users on Twitter to break news stories. The Encyclopedia Britanica can no longer justify printing new volumes annually when Wikipedia is updated daily. There is no longer one, voice coming from the people of power; now the people without power can speak as well.

The flood of new voices, new words and new messages has required us to develop new skills. We are getting better and better at filtering and searching. We filter out messages that we deem to be false or useless. We weed out most of the ads that bombard us and we ignore most of the voices shouting on the internet. We filter things by our bias, by our knowledge and by our relationships. If we already believe something we aren't very  likely to listen to voices saying the opposite of what we believe. If we already know something we don't want to know something different. And if our friends trust voices that are online, we are more likely to trust those voices ourselves. The effect that used to be called "word of mouth" is now called "viral." If a video or blog goes viral, it's passed from friend to friend until it floods the internet. If anything, the invention of the internet has made the way we get information even more relational than it was before. Many people use social media as their primary news source, letting their friends sort out the important stories from the mundane.

We also have had to learn how to search for information. It used to be that finding knowledge meant going to a library or other repository of words. Then with television, the news was piped into our homes and our searching was comprised of button pushes on a remote control. But with the internet, the knowledge available is far exceeding our ability to store it. As of today there are 19.58 billion pages online. That's three web pages for every person on the face of the earth. With so much information available, we need to sort through it better than we ever could before. We rely on tools like Google to search the internet and bring back the best results. But because of that, our brains are adapting to remember fewer and fewer facts. When we know that the information is readily available, we are less likely to commit it to memory. Having the internet on phones has exacerbated the issue since we can now use Google nearly anywhere.

In a world where information has become incredibly cheap, filters, searches and the ability to draw conclusions from the information are increasing in value.

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