Guest post by Holger Breithaupt, Science & Society Editor, EMBO reports, Heidelberg
Aside from what Waldorf & Statler make of the internet, it is the greatest source of information humanity has ever created; larger than the Vatican Archives, the Library of Congress and all public and university libraries combined. And it’s fast. I don’t have to wait for the news on TV or the daily newspaper to tell me about the US government’s latest reaction to AIG’s bonus payments: the internet, in particular the blogosphere or that latest spawn of it, twittering, gives me real-time news, 24 hours a day. Why then, would we still need news on paper, on TV or on the radio?
Given the power of the internet, there are actually not a few who think that it heralds the demise of the newspaper (Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, Shirky, 2009) and even of journalism (Filling the Void, Nature editorial, 2009). Sure, why bother trying to unfold the New York Times during rush hour in the subway to read a 3500-word feature, if I can download 140-character information tidbits on my iPhone? I don’t even have to buy a newspaper or wait for the 8 pm news in the first place: RSS feeds, search engines, ToC alerts or whatever technology spoon-feed me the newsbits that I’m interested in from the sources that I like.
And that’s exactly the problem. As Nicholas Kristof pointed out, we mainly use the internet to reinforce our prejudices and opinions while it makes it easier for us to ignore contradictory arguments (The Daily Me, Kristof, 2009). I myself plead guilty of such behaviour: while I read and enjoy Frank Rich’s column each week, I shunned William Kristol. On the other hand, while I was reading the newspaper the other day, I stumbled upon an article that explained why paying big bonuses to AIG managers who helped run the company aground is not such a bad idea (The Case for Paying Out Bonuses at A.I.G., Sorkin, 2009); I still disagree, but at least I feel I have a better understanding of the issue.
What is at stake here is our ability to reason, which, as I understand it, means forming your own opinion on a given topic–or maybe even changing it–after listening to the diverse pros and cons. Instead, as Kristof noted, the way we use the internet largely serves to harden our pre-formed beliefs unless we deliberately make the effort of searching and reading the arguments we don’t like to hear. Newspapers, TV and radio and good journalism are the antidote: they provide–if they live up to the task–an oversight of arguments and they expose us to topics and opinions that we would just ignore or not even become aware of and thus broaden our horizon. Claiming that they are no longer needed in the brave new world of blogs, social networks and twittering means that we give up an important opportunity to make up our mind.