Arguing Online: Being “Right” in the Digital Age

You're an @sshole: Being

The Digital Age is the current period of human history: We’ve moved from the industry-based society of the Industrial Revolution to a focus on computerizing information and creating a more knowledge-based society.

Also known as the Age of Information, the Digital Age’s greatest achievement is the internet. With the internet (connecting computers through a series of networks) comes access to things we may never have gotten our hands on, and certainly not all at once. Information has, throughout human history, been a priceless commodity and has never before been so readily available as it is today.

So, when we ask the question,

Have we become more intelligent or less in the Digital Age?

the knee jerk response is: Of course we’re smarter now. We have access to a wealth of information (a seemingly unlimited amount). We can connect cultures, and all of the learning therein, with the click of a button. And what’s more, we have the opportunity to share/spread that knowledge in the most revolutionary way since the printing press.

But as has also been discussed (in the article Why facts won’t help win an argument, for example), we often latch only onto the things that we agree with, or, more importantly, the things that agree with us. With the amount of half-truths, unfounded claims, and falsehoods on the internet, it has become too easy to trade truth for misinformation. We’re not always getting the truth or the right information, and then we pass it along thinking we’re doing the world a favor.

And, even if we are more informed, we’re not necessarily smarter.

The convergence of computer ability, data storage, and network ubiquity have become the determiner for how “smart” humans actually are. We’re perhaps less willing to (actually) learn than we ever have been before.

With a Google search only a few finger clicks away, we no longer need our brains to store information; Google does it for us. Having access to information doesn’t necessarily 1.) mean we will use it and 2.) mean we have stored or learned anything useful for real world settings.

“Our brains use information stored in the long-term memory to facilitate critical thinking.”

As discussed in the article How the Internet is Changing Your Brain, our brains have been changed by “the thrill of instant information” and long term memory is no longer as important. We lose a piece of our identity while letting our brains get, well, lazy.

“Every time we open a browser, we prepare for skimming, instead of learning.”

We post articles instead of doing our own critical thinking or creating our own arguments. We go digital instead of mental.

But even that might not be the biggest problem. Even when we do fact-check, research, look at evidence objectively, create a well-reasoned argument, back it up with real world examples, and then share or respond with it online, it doesn’t seem to matter in the end.

Which brings us to our main point:

You’re still an asshole, even if you’re right.

We’re not actually calling you an asshole. But they will. The person who disagrees with you, the person smarter than you, the person “dumber” than you, the person who simply wants to troll you and piss you off, the person hiding behind a username and an avatar that can say whatever they want and get away with it.

It doesn’t matter whether you have knowledge and information.

Especially in the tumultuous political climate that has dominated the last few years (or longer), being “right” has mattered less than ever before. The internet has become a place to latch on to like-minded views, and disregard the rest.

When we should be on the brink of fatigue, the conversations, insults, goalless back-and-forths on Facebook, Twitter, et al. social media sites continue. It takes only one even somewhat inflammatory comment or meme or misunderstanding or simple headline to set off a wave of backlash crashing in from both ends of the political spectrum. And this doesn’t even take into account those trolls looking to stir the pot simply for pot-stirring’s sake.

Godwin’s Law (the adage that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches”) is ancient by technology standards, posited way back in 1990, and yet we still haven’t evolved.

But anyone who has been online over the last year, or several years, or ever in their lives, knows this to be true.

Discussions about internet hate are almost as tired as seeing it happen. So what do we do?

As you should Be responsible with the internet, it’s clear that yet another article detailing what’s wrong isn’t going to change the internet. Our opinions don’t even really matter. Few people actually see them, and even fewer care. Ultimately, internet arguers, right or wrong, just end up looking like trolls (4 Good Reasons Why Arguing Politics On Facebook Is Getting You Nowhere).

It’s gotten so bad that we have the Daily Dot giving us 6 stupid ways to win an argument on the Internet which outlines just how juvenile internet arguments are, and takes the line of thinking that led to Godwin’s Law to entirely new levels.

Basically, we’re doomed.

Or maybe not.

It is possible that the fiery backlash and all-caps internet yelling could actually pave the way for positive discourse. We know that identifying a problem is the first step in solving it. The fact that people are even exposed to new ideas and information, whether they’re angered by them or not, is pushing humanity forward; while the Digital Age has made it much easier to find opinions that support your own, it has also made it much harder to exist in a vacuum.

As Tom Chattfield says in What does it mean to be human in the age of technology?

“Ours is an amazing time to be alive: to be debating such questions together. If there’s one thing our swelling collective articulacy as a species brings home, it’s that people care above all about other people: what they think, do, believe, fear, hate, love, laugh at – and what we can make together.”

While this discussion was centered more around the relationship between man and machine, it highlights something that is far too often forgotten on the internet. We are all humans, and we, each and every one of us a

“…broiling biological pot of emotion, sensation, bias and belief that constitutes the bulk of mental life. We are biased, beautiful creatures. Technology and intellect allow us to externalise our goals; but the ends pursued are those we chose.”

So maybe humanity will win out. Maybe the internet will become the information superhighway, where anyone can publish, discuss, learn, and continue to push society forward into new and exciting realms of possibility, that it was always meant to be.

And if not, we’ll all be replaced by A.I. anyway and good-riddance. If we can’t have a simple discussion on the internet and find common ground with our fellow man in the Digital Age, then maybe people really are just a bunch of @ssholes.

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