Does the Readily Available Information on the Internet Hinder Positive Information Exchange about Christianity?
The Internet has opened up new quick avenues for facts, and there is very little we cannot learn about very quickly if we want to do so. Ask something like, “What were the Bab Ballads?", and most of us can whip out our cell phones, lap tops or tablets and look up the Bab Ballads on the World Wide Web in a matter of seconds. The amount of information immediately available about any given subject gives people the illusion that they know more about a particular subject than they actually know. But knowing a few facts is not the same as knowing the subject. Moreover, the depth of learning that comes from reading articles on the Internet limits understanding.
Think about it: in your field of study – whatever it may be – have you ever conversed with another person who has read a couple of articles on the Internet and acts as if he/she knows as much about your job/field as you do? Of course, you have, and of course, he/she doesn’t. It is less common in fields of the hard sciences or mathematics because people are largely notoriously weak in mathematics and physics. Besides, there is usually only one answer to questions like, “What is the square root of X?” or “What is the formula for calculating the force exerted by Y on Z?” Still, I imagine that even physicists and mathematicians have had to deal with people insisting that they understand physics or math better than the physicist or mathematician. Certainly, doctors report that the access to medical information on the Internet at websites like WebMD (which my office jokingly calls "hypochondriac.com") has caused people to show up at doctor's offices already convinced of their diagnosis and refusing to accept any other diagnosis.
However, for other areas, religion, psychology, alternative health treatments and politics being chief among them, people regularly feel as if they are super-knowledgeable about a subject with only a few moments of Internet research. Why? In part, because there are multiple possible answers to a question such as “Why are so many people in poverty?” and simplistic answers are readily available on the Internet, e.g., “The poor are being oppressed by those with wealth,” or “the poor are lazy and don’t want to work.” Both of these answers may have some merit to them, but neither is fully correct by itself. Still, because the ill-informed individual was able to find an answer quickly on the Internet they feel as if the answer discovered is final. It is rarely easy to respond to these people because they can usually cite facts they found on the Internet to support their view. Nevertheless, they miss the details that make all the difference between being knowledgeable and being dangerous.
Living in this information age has led people to believe they know everything (or, at the very least, can become informed on anything in a few quick web searches). Consequently, we begin to believe that we are somehow better than those in the past. But breadth of knowledge is not equivalent to depth of knowledge. Today, thanks to technology, the river of knowledge is wide but it is shallow – very shallow. And a shallow knowledge leads to a faulty knowledge. One can ordinarily find factual support for anything that suits the predilections of the individual doing the searching – in fact, sometimes experts are paid to sway public opinion by posting on familiar websites information that agrees with those visiting that website. An endless loop is created where the website informs the reader of the “truth” and the reader than goes back to that website to get confirmation that what they originally learned is the “truth” – which they always receive.
But knowing facts is not the same as knowing the subject. Information garnered from web searches, even if accurate, remains extremely shallow. As mentioned above, I could ask someone a question about the Bab Ballads. Chances are that the individual will never have heard about the Bab Ballads. So, using today’s amazing access to information, the individual will pull out her tablet, cell phone or computer and look up “Bab Ballads” on the Internet. Of course, she will find a website or two (certainly Wikipedia will be consulted – even though in some areas it is less reliable than Yahoo! Answers) which will give her a quick description of the Bab Ballads. But reading a description is not the same as reading or hearing the Bab Ballads themselves. It is not the same as recognizing the author of the Bab Ballads or the purpose of the Bab Ballads or fully seeing why the Bab Ballads were unique. It certainly isn’t the same as trying to put yourself in the place of a typical 19th Century Englishman reading or hearing the Bab Ballads. The factual information is there, but there is no depth. In today’s world, we have become more and more familiar with things, but knowing only a few basic facts about something creates a shallow pool of knowledge, indeed.
Moreover, as reported in the Atlantic Monthly's article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", not only is the access to quick, easy answers making us less able to comprehend (or at least consider) deeper issues, the way that the Internet presents the issues also tends to make us less thoughtful and insightful. An article on Sherweb.com citing this Atlantic Monthly article sums it up nicely:
According to developmental psychologist at Tufts University, Maryanne Wolf, “We are not only what we read. We are how we read.”
“Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”
Just because we have more information, doesn’t necessarily mean that the information is better. In fact, it could even be argued that information is being dumb-down and infantilized due to our ever-shrinking attention spans. This bombardment of information, according to some psychologists and researchers, could even end up “interfering with our sleep, sabotaging our concentration and undermining our immune systems”.
When the person believes that they already know everything that they need to know about a subject, they become resistant to instruction from those who know more. The attitude becomes one of "been there, done that." They may even become obstinate believing that since they have already read about the subject to their satisfaction on the Internet, efforts by others to give them more and/or better information become interruptions or annoyances. As a person becomes more comfortable that he knows all that is needed to be known about a particular subject, he will begin to dismiss those who are the real practitioners as if they are laboring in fields that he has already harvested. As a result, this person lingers in a faulty view based upon faulty information, and consequently he may come to hold those who actually know better wrongly in contempt because of their hubris. As the old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Contempt, of course, is "the feeling that something is...worthless"; "disdain"; "scorn." Contempt follows for points of views that are not consistent with the simple (and often simplistic) foundational principle from which the individual has formed beliefs.
I believe that those of us who have been reading about, thinking about, and studying the claims of Christianity for many years -- and especially those of us who have argued for the truth of Christianity on the Internet -- will understand this: the ability of people to immediately access snippets of information from the Internet to argue against Christianity is killing true conversation. Many of the shallower objections raised have been answered and soundly, but they continue to persist as if they are brand new because anti-Christian websites never take down articles or arguments that have been proven unfounded. And even when the objections have some measure of merit (I admit that there are several good reasons to doubt Christianity although I believe each of them have been adequately answered), the person posting the objection is usually unwilling or even unable to think past the initial argument. The thought is there, but it is generally not the thoughts of the person actually posting the objection -- they merely mimic or mirror the thoughts of others without truly understanding the underlying premises for the argument.
Don't get me wrong. I am not against information being as available as possible. I would much rather have too much information than too little, but the exhaustive amount of unfiltered information available on the Internet presents new challenges to Christians in spreading the Gospel message. Not only do we need to present the news, we have to overcome objections gleaned from casual surfing of the Internet which aren't even the individual's personally held objections because they are merely borrowing the thoughts of another. How do I know whether an objection is really real or if it is just a convenient roadblock dug up from some anti-Christian website?