Having all the data you could ever want at the tip of your fingers is no longer relegated to the fantasy of movies or books. By touching the phone, iPad, or computer, it’s all within our grasp.
When I was growing up we were taught how to use the Dewey Decimal System. Since the late 1800’s it was how we found the information we sought. It could be searched using the title, author or subject matter in a directory of 3 by 5 inch cards. That then led you to the correct file cabinet filled with books that had that stream of letters and numbers. Sound cumbersome? It was, but it was also an incredibly effective way to catalog enormous volumes of information that anyone could understand and find, regardless of the library visited. Another option was via an encyclopedia. A series of alphabetically labelled books that outlined what was considered the most important and relevant data of the time- i.e. world leaders, wars, and other current events. Of course this only gave you one answer from one persons perspective that was written who knows how long ago before it was updated who knows when. The set I grew up with gathers dust in my home to this day. A wonderful reminder of how far we’ve come.
That all changed with the internet.
It sounds archaic but I grew up with just three stations from the primary broadcasting agencies- ABC, NBC and CBS. That’s where everyone went to hear the news. Every night for just thirty minutes current events were reviewed. And they only differed by the personality of the broadcaster and who got the scoop first. Not content. If there was a whiff of misdirection, deceit or corruption the agency might never recover. Their integrity was all that mattered and presenting the news honestly. For example, Walter Cronkite was one of the most famous news broadcasters of the time. When he said that was the news for the night you believed it. And you believed what he told you were the facts, not conjecture or outright lies. I’m not naive enough to believe it wasn’t swayed back then by how the “ higher ups” or the government wanted it presented. Or information suppressed or “spun” when it suited someone’s agenda, but reputations were built on character and integrity. Outright falsehoods or personal beliefs were unheard of unless it was clearly labelled an opinion. When you walked away from a broadcast you walked away believing that what you heard were indisputable facts.
Back then we all followed the same a code of ethics – guidelines that everyone agreed were appropriate for any society to function properly. Of course subterfuge happened, but once exposed those that caused it were shunned and cast out. Their reputations sullied, sometimes irrecoverably. It was also difficult to outright lie because others would do their best to expose the truth. Getting the story first, but more importantly accurately, was the hallmark everyone aspired to. In those days nothing could be printed or verbalized unless at least two sources confirmed the data presented. Without that the story never saw the light of day.
The only priority was presenting the facts. One’s ability to sway wasn’t based on espousing lies but rather using these facts to further a perspective that proved your argument. That’s what debate is all about. Taking the exact same set of facts and putting them into alternative scenarios. They were never disputed, there was no such thing as fact checking. Slander and libel had serious consequences.
I have no doubt it was far from perfect. And having limited resources may have given those in power greater ability to disseminate whatever they chose. But when the guiding example was to get the facts, truth often found a way through the quagmire. And when it did the consequences were substantial. A perfect example is Watergate.
A true democracy encourages open discussion of the facts and debates predicated on honest representations that seek to sway based on intelligent thought and articulated reasons. That’s what pushes us beyond our comfort zone and exposes us to alternative ideas.
In a day and age where we can acquire vast amounts of knowledge instantaneously how do we ensure it is truthful when anyone can write a blog, or post on the internet with little to no oversight? By checking its veracity. By questioning every statement and investigating every source. It’s exhausting and the inevitable question that comes up is – who fact checks the fact checkers? More data is never the problem, it guarantees all perspectives get aired. The very antithesis to a dictatorship. It is how we use and see the data that’s the ultimate answer.
Walter Cronkite may have been an honorable man, but he was only one man. Now we have infinite resources, and it’s up to us to get the corroborating evidence to define the truth. With all the data at our fingertips and all the lies it can spew, it’s up to each of us to make sure what we are quoting or basing a decision on is accurate.
More work? Absolutely. But access is always worth the effort.