To effectively navigate and participate in the world today, it is necessary to understand how the internet works, and, more broadly, how technologies affect our lives. The internet has become an essential tool and information source for the average person living today. Moreover, technological advances in the past half-century have thrust most people across the world into a highly technical and complex world that they have no choice but to navigate.
Without basic critical thinking abilities, it is impossible to comprehend and properly assess the internet, the news embedded in it, and, more broadly, the technologies surrounding us. We need to look closely at how the internet works.
We need to know how technologies are on one hand improving, and on the other hand diminishing, the quality of our lives. We need to understand the big picture of technology—to both better protect ourselves and to think critically about the technologies we support and participate in.
It is essential to understand, at the outset, that the websites and technologies being created for us are only as good as the reasoning that conceptualizes, creates, and maintains them over time. By this we mean specifically the reasoning of the people overseeing and executing a given website or technology. In many cases, if the reasoning used in the development process is limited in some important dimensions, products are created that the public is then forced into buying, because those are the only such products available to them. A primary assumption that should be questioned, then, is that the people creating the technologies are also experts in understanding how the end-user will want and need to use that technology. For instance, a small number of companies monopolize the design and development of cell phones. Over time, to keep us buying, these phones become more complex with added features (often of little or no use to most buyers), while at the same time losing desirable features from a previous version of the same phone.
This points up the underlying pervasive authority of money on the fabric of human life, and specifically the untenable pattern of constantly spending on products for the purpose of maintaining the current capitalistic system, which is designed so that it can never be satiated no matter how productive our output.
This way of living requires the pursuit of ever higher yields of money through the ramping up of capitalism across the world, and is manifest in companies constantly creating products with as short a life span as we will tolerate, which can then be thrown away and replaced as soon as possible. This enables companies to force us into purchasing new technologies as soon as possible in order to constantly fill their coffers. Never mind that many of these products are far inferior to products made (in some cases) a hundred or more years ago. Never mind that the earth’s resources are being continually diminished and our trash heaps are ever growing.
HOW THE INTERNET WORKS: THE BIG PICTURE
To understand the logic of the internet is first to see it as a huge information-propagating machine, with tentacles going out into countless directions which, in the perceivable future, will continue to expand into something like infinity. For our purposes, we need not catalog these tentacles (whose vastness would exhaust the mind, as well as become obsolete as soon as they were cataloged). Rather, what we need is to grasp the logic of the whole and how critical thinking can help us weave our way through internet information sources, weed out junk and nonsense unworthy of our attention, and focus on what is best and what enhances, rather than diminishes, the quality of our lives.
First and foremost, as with all creations of humans, we must recognize that every website, again, is a product of human reasoning; even if generated by machines, every website must be at some point conceived by human reasoning, if only to set it in motion. As such, every website should be judged according to the quality of reasoning embedded in it.
Here are some simple starting places:
1. For most people today, spending enormous amounts of time on the internet is considered both natural and good. However, critical thinkers limit their exposure to the internet to those information sources and sites that enhance some part of their real lives. They spend far less time online than the vast majority of people, who seem or are addicted to the internet. This is because virtual reality simply is not the same as living in and experiencing the real world. Virtual reality can never replace the beauty and dynamism of experiencing actual human relationships face to face. Of course, at unusual times like this, during a worldwide pandemic which forces us to socially distance from one another, we have to rely on the internet more for social and business interactions. One of the best uses of the internet, indeed, is the fact that we can meet and talk face to face using webcams, in real time and all across the world. This feature has unlimited potential for good. We are only beginning to learn its value now.
2. For the most part, “succeeding” on the internet is not the same as succeeding in the real world—the latter of which entails developing individual skills of creativity. Consider, for instance, the time wasted on gaming. Or consider the fact that people “play instruments” such as the guitar online, believing themselves to be actual musicians when they are nothing of the kind. These endeavors give the illusion of success, but in fact are addictions of the mind that lead away from engaging in real-life healthy and creative activities such as sports or playing the actual guitar or piano. Those who fall prey to these types of illusions are typically unaware of the fact that algorithms are designed, increasingly with the help of psychologists, to figure out exactly how to keep people addicted to these games and other digital activities.
3. Recognize that we can divide internet content into two basic (but often overlapping) categories:
a) the websites you choose to visit and activities you choose to engage in.
b) the things that come at you and happen to you as byproducts of visiting these websites—the advertisements bombarding you, advertisers tracking you in ways you are unaware of, government surveillance systems, and so forth. The varieties of websites you can choose to visit are ever expanding, so we wouldn’t try to catalogue them all, but here are some basic types:
1. Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and LinkedIn—these are place where people talk about and share all manner of things, including what is frequently termed “news.”
2. Shopping sites, such as the monstrous Amazon and numerous smaller sites, where you can purchase things that come right to your door.
3. Educational and other information-propagating websites, such as encyclopedias; video-streaming services; schools, colleges, and universities (public and private, professional and technical, musical, artistic, and so on);
podcasts; and audio book sites.
4. Gaming sites, including instrument and sports simulations.
5. Social casinos, where people pretend they are gambling. Users are not winning real money, but they are paying real money to play. In fact, many people are apparently now addicted to the “game” of gambling in ways similar to additions to actual gambling, some of whom have lost tens of thousands of dollars or more at these social casinos.(footnote)
6. News sites, including mainstream and alternative news.
7. Membership sites, including academic and technical sites, or sites dedicated to arts or the professions. Some of these are private and require payment to join.
ASSESS A GIVEN WEBSITE USING CRITICAL THINKING STANDARDS
Any website must be individually assessed for quality, since no standards are built into the internet. Freedom of speech allows for even the most inane, crass, immature, and dangerous thoughts to be broadcast, and people with similar biases tend to share their biased “news” and commentary with one another, validating their already narrowminded views.
Again, the quality of information—and, indeed, everything—found on the internet is only as good as the quality of the thinking that gives rise to it. And since the quality of human thinking is typically ignored in human societies, we can’t expect any given website to be at all concerned with advancing reasonable principles. See Criteria Corner in our academy to learn about critical thinking standards. (https://community.criticalthinking.org/criteriaCorner.php. Also see: https://community.criticalthinking.org/viewDocument.php…).
Footnote: To understand some of the important implications of this, read how Facebook works with social casinos to keep people addicted:
This blog was adapted from an excerpt (pp. 66-70) from our forthcoming book: Fact Over Fake: A critical thinkers guide to media bias and political propaganda, by Richard Paul and Linda Elder (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2020, in press: www.rowman.com).