Internet: the Great Leveler?

I was out of my usual haunts recently to speak at a young adults’ fellowship in what we call around here “The Cities.” Some of the conversation there had to do with SharperIron and, afterward, discussion with a few lingerers went to a familiar point. One young man observed that the trouble with Internet discussions goes beyond questions of the use of technology. The medium itself is a problem. It is inherently hostile to leadership because it erases distinctions and puts everyone on the same level.

A result, he said, is that “bad conversation crowds out good conversation.” A related thought from someone in the group was that so much of the dynamic of persuasive speaking and writing relates to who is saying it and not simply what is being said, and the Internet forum medium tends to neutralize the who factor.

These are thoughtful critiques of the medium and worthy of prolonged attention. I want to make a small down payment here toward that prolonged attention.

The question

The big question seems to be this: Is the easy-access discussion technology of the Internet (more precisely, the World Wide Web) inherently prone to an unhelpful or wrongful leveling effect?

I’m aware that many quickly react to that question in the negative. “Of course it doesn’t! Only elitists think that giving everyone even footing in a discussion is a bad thing.” But I’m sympathetic to views of the alleged elitists. It’s not immediately obvious to me that it’s a good idea to take a random sampling of a population, put them in an auditorium, give them all microphones and announce that the goal of the session is, say, to develop a good policy for peace in the Middle East. If the group consists of a hundred people, there might be two or three at most who could be expected to have the knowledge of history, politics, government and foreign policy to supply high quality ideas. (If peace in the Middle East doesn’t work for you, try brain surgery or rocket science.)

And if the question concerns theology (whether practical theology or the “impractical” kind), is the matter less important or less complex than peace in the Middle East? It is certainly not less weighty. And at least some questions in theology are as complex as the practical and sociopolitical complexities of the Middle East.

So we might as well face it: I’m probably an elitist. I’m fully persuaded that not all people are equally entitled to have opinions on every subject or equally likely to have thoughtful opinions that can be helpful to others.

In any conversation about football defensive strategies, Chinese calligraphy or quantum entanglement, I hope I’d have the sense to keep my mouth shut—or just ask questions and listen. I’m clearly unqualified to hold opinions about any of those things. And in a conversation where people just as ignorant presume to opine, I’d be on the side of those saying, “Shut up and let the smart people talk!”

Still, I hope all of you populists and semi-egalitarians (a large majority, I’m pretty sure) will keep reading. You’ll be in a better position to combat elitism if you better understand how we elitists see the problem.

Questions beneath the question

To return to the big question, is the easy-access, open-discussion technology of the Internet inherently prone to an unhelpful, or even wrongful, leveling effect? To answer that question, we have to consider some others. What exactly is being leveled, in what way is it being leveled and what are the real results? To put it another way, whose views are being improperly lifted and whose are being improperly lowered? And is this leveling improper because of the kind of leveling that is happening, or because of the way it’s happening, or because of the results of its happening—or some combination of the above?

What is being leveled?

If you put three theology PhDs and twenty eighth-graders in a Web forum and have them discuss some sensitive question, like whether eighth-graders are still children who must honor and obey their parents, the results are pretty predictable. The twenty eighth-graders are absolutely going to dominate. The PhDs will have trouble keeping up; they’ll be out-posted something like ten posts to one! And if the participants are actually interacting, the conversation will tend to focus on who is disrespecting whom, who is being rude and who is being arrogant, rather than on the matter of honoring and obeying parents. (In defense of the eighth-graders I know, several of them would be shouting at the rest to shut up and listen to the PhDs. But that doesn’t really detract from my point.)

The scenario probably turns out a bit better if everyone knows who the PhDs are and all the eighth-graders post using their real names. But the gravitation in the situation is still the same: the pull is toward bad conversation. Bad conversation tends to crowd out good conversation, and most of the participants in this example would not be capable of (or willing to produce) good conversation on the topic.

This gravitation toward fruitless talk happens because, to use the auditorium analogy, everyone’s got a microphone and there is no platform. Everyone has equal opportunity to communicate, and the sheer number of uninformed people tends to determine the course of the conversation. What is leveled, then, is control of the conversation.

But more than that is leveled. In this scenario, Sam the eighth-grader can tell the three PhDs that they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. And, in my experience, PhDs don’t generally like being talked to that way. (Hey, they’ve spent more hours learning and thinking than the average eighth-grader has spent eating, texting and video gaming combined—and that’s saying something!) Two out of three PhDs would probably contribute to the decay of the conversation by scolding Sam the eighth-grader, rather than disproving his assertions or patiently helping him understand why an attitude of deference would be more wise and good. (I appreciate the PhDs, but let’s be realistic. They’re human, and sometimes they’re touchy about their knowledge because they’ve devoted their lives and fortunes to acquiring it. Even if the eighth-grader has a point, it just doesn’t seem fair!)

So in addition to leveling control of the conversation, the open forum also tends to level the ethos of the participants. It tends to reduce the authority of experts to declare something to be true and expect others to defer to their expertise. To a lesser degree, the environment also tends to reduce the authority of a person of character and wisdom to express sound judgment and expect others to honor it. This second side of the ethos coin is far more serious, but, for reasons I hope to make clear eventually—it is also less inherently threatened by the open forum medium.

How, and with what result?

If the medium of the open Internet forum tends to result in this kind of leveling, should we move away from it as “bad technology”? I believe that conclusion is premature. We have not yet considered the mechanics of how this leveling occurs or what the results are over time. Nor have we considered what is not leveled by this medium or how its strengths and weaknesses compare to other mediums such as spoken conversation and old fashioned ink-and-paper publication. Doing so may well reveal mitigating factors or optional features of the medium that can be altered to maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses.

I’m open to the idea that there can be such things as “bad technologies.” I’m not yet persuaded that the Internet forum is one of them.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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There are 37 Comments

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I'm wondering if the PhDs vs 8th graders is a fair comparison. First, I think it assumes that a knowledgeable person must have a university degree or 'proof' of their qualifications. This is simply not the case, especially when we are talking about theology and spiritual maturity. Understanding of Scripture is as much a work of the Holy Spirit as it is one of studying the writings of the church fathers, or having a thorough grasp of Greek and Hebrew. That is what separates 'expertise' in theology from every other discipline/vocation. I don't care if the neurosurgeon or the quantum physicist or the plumber have a relationship with God. It'd be nice, but it ain't necessary.

I agree with Alexander Pope that "A little learning is a dangerous thing", but knowledge without humility is just as harmful. I am smack dab in the middle of the road on this topic.

Learning requires time, patience, and repetition from both the student and the teacher. The marks of a good teacher are a love for the material, an affinity for their students, and the ability to effectively communicate and inspire. The minute the PhD says "Shut up, I'm an expert", I am going to walk away. Is that my loss, or theirs?

I am not at all persuaded that the internet is a new problem- it's a new wrinkle on an age old weakness of human nature. So while I am all for a special respect for elders, bowing to the wisdom of the gray head (or the bald one!), and acknowledging experience, all people should be treated with kindness and compassion, and civility at the very least. (Romans 12:18) I do not believe we can expect to reap behavior we have not modeled. If we sow impatience and arrogance, that's what we are going to get in the next generation. Our '8th graders' are just a reflection of us.

I do believe there is a time to walk away from someone who is simply sowing discord or is having a bad hair day. So IMO the positive aspect of an internet forum vs the auditorium where everyone has a microphone is that an internet forum can be moderated to so that the discussion remains civil and stays focused on the topic. But that is not an easy task by a long shot.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

I concur with your sentiments. Perhaps articles submitted by notable Teachers could have all responses reviewed with all other threads remaining as peer to peer so that the tasking for mods and admin,while increased, would only increase in that category,again with all other threads remaining peer to peer. It also may serve as an example of elevated dialog/debate for peer to peer threads.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Alex Guggenheim wrote:
I concur with your sentiments. Perhaps articles submitted by notable Teachers could have all responses reviewed with all other threads remaining as peer to peer so that the tasking for mods and admin,while increased, would only increase in that category,again with all other threads remaining peer to peer. It also may serve as an example of elevated dialog/debate for peer to peer threads.

If notable teachers were notable for behaving themselves, I'd concur. In all of my years of moderating on various forums, I can say that most of the rude, obstinate, and hostile communications I receive are from 'notable' teachers, or those that believe themselves to be notable.

rrobinson's picture

I can see where you are coming from, but I question your scenario a bit. Maybe my objection is only semantic, but it could also be that your scenario exemplifies certain starting points and that these are the source of a lot of the negative view of the internet being something that by nature lends itself to an unhelpful or wrongful leveling effect.

First, one could and probably should view the internet as something that just "is". Kind of like Postmodernism. There are some aspects of PM that we may not like; some that may be wrong. But you don't refuse to talk to a postmodern person in terms he can understand just because he comes to you with that particular worldview; and you certainly don't refuse to speak to him at all. You endeavour to engage with him the best you can; you may even learn some of his "ways" in an effort to make yourself more of an ambassador.

Part of my objection is this:
No-one "puts" 20 eighth-graders and three PHD's in a webforum. If they "do", of course they are asking for less than optimal results.

Rather, people seek out information that is of interest to them, they get interested in what others are saying, and they take note of the reaction to certain "opinions" by others they "respect" (and this is key).

The internet, therefore, is somewhat self-governing. To, some (shall we say the "old school"), this may seem inherently chaotic and counter-productive. And, as with postmodernism, you learn to take the bad with the good.

In your scenario, the more fruitful course of action is to pretty much use the internet in the same way one would seek the growth of the eighth-graders in the abscence of the internet...
The youth leader (a hands-on person that the youth know and trust and probably not a crusty old PHD) would be the "moderator", "guide", "curator" and invite their participation as they discuss the relevant Bible passages, the work of the PHDs, and how this impacts their responsibilites as young people on the verge of adulthood.

Maybe a few parents or older siblings of the youth could be included as well. Afterall, a scenario is more likely to disintegrate into chaos or fruitlessness if the only two types "put" together are the experts and the patently non-experts, with nothing in the middle. I realize you are being figurative, but I feel your scenario is quite artificial none-the-less, even if it seems very real to the expert in the scenarion much of the time.

If the goal of the PHDs is, in fact, to directly participate in the growth of these particluar 20 eight-graders and this is their opportunity to engage with them, then, frankly, they need to buckle down and persevere, it's not their show.

I'm not sure the scenario necessarily turns out better just because the PHDs are identified. They still have to be trusted to some degree. Simply saying, "Listen to me because of who I am or what I know about this subject" doesn't really cut it. Sure, this is the bane of the Modernist or Elitist. But it can also show the wonder of relationships. No-one should object to this, because such elitism has often been abused and many of us would say it is the message/the content that matters and not the messenger. How do we identify good content? Through the recommedations of people we trust, our friends. It's as simple as that. How could it be otherwise most would ask?

Due to the vast amounts of information and the ease of creating new information, there is certainly the potential for us to be overloaded, distracted or misled. There will be lots of bad information; there will be lots of misinformed opinions; and there will be lots of poor judgement. But never before in the history of mankind has one PHD had such an ability and opportunity to influence any one eighth-grader anywhere on the planet in anything approaching real time. Is that not humbling, or what?

Brenda T's picture

The Alexander Pope quote from comment #1 presents only one line out of a lengthy poem titled "An Essay on Criticism" which can be read http://poetry.eserver.org/essay-on-criticism.html here. What I find interesting is what Pope says after "A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;" He continues

"Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring: There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain, And drinking largely sobers us again. . . ."

In the context of the entire poem it appears as though he's saying that it is "little" learning that produces a false sense of knowing. A person with a Ph.D. is not one of "little" learning (o.k., unless it was from one of those degree mills perhaps). However, I agree that there are also non-Ph.D.s who are not of "little" learning. A person who has studied the Bible for countless hours (with the guidance of the Holy Spirit either for a degree or not) has drunk deeply while those who have not put a lot of time and effort into it have only taken shallow draughts.

In Aaron's analogy regarding the biblical principle of honoring and obeying parents one easily knows which group has drunk deeply and which shallowly as soon as the conversation gets started. In the course of certain internet conversations that is easy to spot as well regardless if the person has a lot of initials behind his/her name or not.

Quote:
The marks of a good teacher are a love for the material, an affinity for their students, and the ability to effectively communicate and inspire.

Susan, are you saying those are the most important marks of a teacher of God's Word? Should also the truthfulness of what they are teaching be a mark or even be the most important one?

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Brenda T wrote:

Quote:
The marks of a good teacher are a love for the material, an affinity for their students, and the ability to effectively communicate and inspire.

Susan, are you saying those are the most important marks of a teacher of God's Word? Should also the truthfulness of what they are teaching be a mark or even be the most important one?


Brenda, I thought I addressed that aspect here-
Susan R wrote:
Understanding of Scripture is as much a work of the Holy Spirit as it is one of studying the writings of the church fathers, or having a thorough grasp of Greek and Hebrew. That is what separates 'expertise' in theology from every other discipline/vocation.

So to clarify- a meaningful relationship with God and an acknowledgment that it is the Holy Spirit that leads and guides us to truth is absolutely key. That is where, IMO, humility enters the mix for all of us.

Jim's picture

Death is the "Great Leveler"

Quote:
For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! ( Ecclesiastes 2:16 )

Quote:
For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. ( Ecclesiastes 3:19 )

The Internet is .... well .... nothing like that!

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I read http://utmost.org/shallow-and-profound/ this this morning, and I think it relates-

Quote:
Beware of allowing yourself to think that the shallow aspects of life are not ordained by God; they are ordained by Him equally as much as the profound. We sometimes refuse to be shallow, not out of our deep devotion to God but because we wish to impress other people with the fact that we are not shallow. This is a sure sign of spiritual pride. We must be careful, for this is how contempt for others is produced in our lives. And it causes us to be a walking rebuke to other people because they are more shallow than we are. Beware of posing as a profound person— God became a baby.

Brenda T's picture

Thanks Susan for the response. Yes, you covered it. I just wanted to make sure I understood precisely what you were saying and that it was tightly connected to your marks of a good teacher.

Thanks Jim for the verses. For those of us who are still alive, we must wrestle with this "leveling" idea if we are to continue internet discussions with other living people.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron wrote:
Amy Grant, not a favorite with fundamentalists, once sang,

Quote:
You Gotta Know Who To Not to Listen To
Amy was right on this one.

Aaron is also right:

Quote:
I’m fully persuaded that not all people are equally entitled to have opinions on every subject or equally likely to have thoughtful opinions that can be helpful to others.

This is very much true. However, the way we measure "qualified" can be a bit narrow. Sometimes a level field allows for participants to discover who is really most qualified. We have all known folks with advanced degrees in theology who really do not know their Bible that well, and the self-taught who know it amazingly well. In addition, the ability to think is distinct from credentials.

The real discernment must come from readers and participants who must decide whose opinion counts more. Unfortunately, the ethic that everyone's opinion counts the same is ingrained in the American way. The best way to handle this dilemma is to recognize that everyone has an opportunity to speak, but we can select who we are going to hear and who we are going to ignore.

Incidentally, the same problem causes conflict in our churches. People in the pew with little or no theological training think they understand more than pastors and trained individuals. We might argue that this is the pitfall of congregational rule. A member who is newly saved has a vote just like a seasoned mature believer.

"The Midrash Detective"

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

There are at least 3 (and probably more) problems with the simple perception of internet conversations as being "leveling," even though in some sense, they are.

1. Along with today's more or less "instant" communication, people are not willing to put work into something that takes time. If someone approaches an internet forum that has been around for a while, tries it for even a couple days and then decides it's of no value because the rules he is used to are not in effect, then he has made not only a hasty decision, but probably a foolish one.

2. Credibility on the internet is NOT equal, but the rules for determining credibility are different. I agree with Aaron that not every opinion on something has equal value, and not every person is qualified to have an opinion that should be heard on every topic. However, if one understands that it really is the truth of something that matters and not where it comes from, and is willing to do some slogging, it becomes obvious on any internet forum who the regulars are, who isn't a regular, whose opinions are worthwhile, and whose aren't. And this is done regularly even on forums where people aren't required to identify themselves. Again, though, it's not an instant process. Shouting "I've got a PhD, so the rest of you be quiet and defer to my opinion" should not be used as a "quick fix."

3. Although it may seem to some that it is too easy to get shouted down, words of wisdom will remain readable (unless they are moderated out) alongside foolish words, something that doesn't happen in a typical conversation where the wise words might be missed by those who can't hear them. If it seems that wise written words are lost in a sea of foolish comments, then again I would say that not enough time is spent actually looking for them. After one has spent some time on internet forums, it becomes easy to scan over comments, recognize ones not worth reading, and focus on the jewels.

I wouldn't consider myself any sort of expert, but I've been participating in internet forums since about 1986 or 1987, so I do have a little experience. It took me a long time to get past the "rules" of standard conversation or classroom or church interaction to understand how online forums work. I also had to spend quite a lot of time to figure out what was worth reading and what wasn't. If you do this long enough, it becomes much easier to pick out the voices worth listening to. And, this process lends itself to the reader learning to do some serious evaluation, rather than just accepting what is said because some supposed bigwig or expert said so.

As an aside, one should read all the discussion between physicists recently about the supposed discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos. Even all the "experts" in the field can't agree if they really exist, or there is experimental error, or if the results of the experiment are being interpreted correctly. Even in a community of PhDs, it's not enough to just make a claim and not have to support it (and have it backed up by many others). Unfortunately, the "declare it from on high" and expect it to be believed approach has been used way too often in fundamentalism, and open forums are a necessary corrective to that. That doesn't mean respect should be thrown out the window, but demanding respect is insufficient -- true respect is earned.

Just as a quick example, music has been discussed in Christian forums pretty much ad nauseum. The biggest reason it won't go away is that too often when pressed for a reason behind a specific view of music, the proponents of that view claim that non-experts can't understand the reasons, so others just have to accept it. Sorry, but that's not the way biblical Christianity works -- only God can make claims without support; all of our claims need to be either the same as his or supported by evidence, biblical or otherwise. The Bereans were considered noble for trying to determine whether the words of Paul (an apostle) were true or not.

Aaron writes about the open forum: "It tends to reduce the authority of experts to declare something to be true and expect others to defer to their expertise." That is true, and I would argue that that's a good thing. Even experts (or maybe I should say *especially* experts) should be able and willing to explain the reasoning behind what they are declaring. If they are either too busy or unwilling (or possibly even *unable*) to do so, then I think they are deluded if they expect others to listen to them solely on the benefit of known past accomplishments.

Dave Barnhart

Charlie's picture

I'm not convinced that the Internet is much of a leveler. It is true that almost anyone can open up a blog or website. However, not all blogs or website get equal bandwidth. Much like the print world, the Internet is dominated by money and prestige. The vast majority of hits are concentrated on a few websites. I don't have statistics, but I would not be surprised to find that 1% of the websites carry 99% of the web traffic. So, having a sufficient bankroll and a place in the center of virtual institutions are the greatest determining factors in whose voice gets heard. (For what it's worth, I'm merely applying James Hunter's theory of cultural capital from To Change the World to the internet.)

Even on this website, people do not really have equal influence. Again, anyone can talk, but no one can make others listen. Those people who are front page writers are assigned more cultural capital than those who merely comment. I'm sure many people don't even look at the comments when they're done reading articles. (Come to think of it, I think other people probably finish commenting before reading the articles.) Even among featured authors, people who appear regularly, such as Kevin Bauder, accumulate more capital than people who write only a single article. On the forum, people will tend to avoid topics or personalities that they find distasteful.

At risk of sounding cliche, I think a website with a structure similar to SI's offers a version of the (alleged) American dream. Not everybody begins equal, and everybody should know that. But, if you put in some time, gain some friends, and have quality ideas, you can achieve some stature. It's possible for an ordinary person to break into SI and make his or her mark in a way that one probably couldn't break into The Gospel Coalition or First Things.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Mike Durning's picture

I too am torn on this topic. In favor of sites like SI, I believe Fundamentalism has been done a great service by pulling the discussion down to the common level. It used to be that only college/seminary presidents, big church pastors, and a few evangelists could define the movement’s shibboleths. Now those kinds of discussions are open to us all. This has been healthy, I believe. Yes, I’m one of those people. I am not a fan of homogenized, safe, and sterile conversation, and I think the Steven Hopkins was right when he said "I’ve never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about” (if he actually did say it).

But I’m also a bit of an elitist. I will gladly defer when I am ignorant on a topic, but I seldom am willing to defer when my debate opponent is ill-informed. I usually can tell the difference between a well-informed person who disagrees with me and a poorly informed one, most times.

At SI, I think the problem is usually not so bad with certain kinds of threads. Hermeneutical discussions (“What does this verse mean?”) are the kind where the well-informed are usually respected and the poorly informed either keep quiet or at least defer when corrected. The great theological debates of the ages (Calvinism or not?) are more poorly dealt with here, since there are so many who believe themselves to be well-informed but actually only understand their side and a straw man of the other. But intelligent conversation is still possible. On the other hand, let someone start a debate about worship music, or one of the other shibboleths, and true scholarship usually goes out the window. Quite frankly, I’m not entirely certain true scholarship can arise on such questions in the environment in Fundamentalism.

The spiritual traps are also many. Principally, narcissism. “I wonder if they’re aware of what I think” can quickly become “I’ve got to get them thinking of my point again” and finally “I want everyone to look at me.”

At this point, SI is still a great and important place for discussion, though the traps are many. I fear for the future generations though. There are too many young people who are not being taught the proper filtering techniques and cannot identify good and poor sources of information. When the drivel on one web-site is touted here as equivalent to the wisdom of great scholars of the ages, we will have lost the utility of this forum.

What I fear most is much like what Nathan Hatch discusses in his “Democratization of American Christianity”, but even more like what Alister McGrath discusses in “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea”, a book with a truly frightening prognosis for Protestant Christianity in general. In that book, he points out that when Luther said “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason…” he changed the rules from a top-down to a bottom-up approach to truth. And Protestantism has been fracturing into ever-smaller groups since, with no clear end in sight, short of the Lord’s return. SI and forums like them serve a healthy purpose, but they can increase the likelihood of fracture in the body, unless people keep the discussions in proper perspective.

handerson's picture

I appreciate the leveling effect of sites like SI for this simple reason: there are many conversations and interactions that I would never be able to have in person simply because of our subculture's expectations about how young/old, male/female, married/single people are supposed to relate. It would be very unlikely (in my experience) for a young mom with interests in theology or ministry to be able to engage her pastor or church leaders on these kinds of issues without raising eyebrows. (Perhaps they are raised here too but I simply can't see them.) In this sense, leveling the field has actually allowed for my ideas to be evaluated (for good or bad) without my gender or age forming the first impression.That being said, I still think that the rules of etiquette should apply-- the problem isn't so much the format as the loss of respect for others, in other words, simple human decency.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I regret that I haven't had time to keep up very well today.
Just a bit about my point in in using the PhDs and 8th graders analogy.
I chose two extremes in order to make it as clear as possible that real differences exist and that forums do have blurring influence on those differences.
The analogy isn't intended to say that you can't have an informed opinion unless you have x amount of education. It's intended to show that differences in education do tend to correlate to real knowledge. The correlation isn't absolute--and I don't think anybody claims that zero non PhDs have the same expertise as PhDs. And nobody claims that 100% of PhDs are wise or worth listening too.

But the fact that there is a high correlation between educational level and real knowledge is pretty obvious: none of us would look for an 8th grader to draw up our estate plan or work on our teeth or give us marital counseling.

(It's true that Scripture and theology are special because every believer is indwelled by the Spirit. However, the pastoral epistles refer to elders being "apt to teach," which only makes sense of there are some believers who are not apt. Though there is no substitute for the Spirit in the enterprise of understanding Scripture, there is also no substitute for education. The latter can be had without credentials, but again, correlations are strong.)

I think it's pretty obvious too that there are real differences between people of good character/sound judgment vs. what Proverbs calls fools and scorners. Again the differences are not absolute because good and wise people have bad and foolish moments and, I suppose, fools are occasionally right.

So the starting point for analyzing the good/bad, right/wrong of forum "leveling," is seeing that there are some things that ought not to be leveled, some differences that are worth recognizing insofar as that's possible.

As for how much leveling really happens in forums and how much of that is built into the technology itself... I hope to get some time to finish part 2 soon.
... but a sneak peek: what happens when an anonymous writer consistently produces good quality material over a long period of time? And what if, even in the midst of an ugly and stupid Internet posting tsunami, some post thoughtful, insightful things that remain there to be read after the emotional frenzy has died down?
These are factors that tend to be ignored by critics who focus on anonymity and mob phenomena: time factors.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Overall, I think the internet has a positive leveling effect. Everything that happens is public. Many years ago I came to the conclusion that 'internet privacy' is THE oxymoron to end all oxymorons.

Here's a thought- a sneaky guy comes into your church and starts sowing seeds of discord, heresy, etc... it may be weeks or months before you are aware of it, or it is addressed by a mature member of the congregation. But on the net, a wolf can be quickly and publicly confronted and corrected. Those that have ears to hear will do so.

I agree with Bro. Barnhart. You read what you are interested in, listen to whom you choose, internalize what resonates or rings true. You can immediately do whatever fact-checking is needed.

Those who choose to remain uninformed, uneducated, immature, or apostate would do so whether the internet existed or not. Case in point- Absalom, who managed to stage a rebellion and overthrow his father's kingdom simply by standing in the gate and schmoozing the folks. Nothing really new under the sun.

I think some of the concern about leveling is that of authority. Even here at SI, the 'authority' is Aaron Blumer the site owner, The Awesome, Wise, and Noble Forum Director Jim Peet, and to some extent, the moderators. But what is it that we do that's 'authoritative'? We approve registrations, enforce the Comment Policy and Doctrinal Statement, post articles for Filings... Some seem to have a desire to turn forums into churches where there is a pastor and deacons and designated teachers... to exert control over what is said, but that isn't Scriptural or even possible.

So- if forums such as SI are more like internet coffee shops- isn't the local Starbucks also a leveler then? I don't know 'who' I am talking to there sometimes any more than I do here. At least here I can examine 'credentials', or go back and read a person's previous posts to fully examine their position, or search for a particular phrase or topic... where else do you get to do that?

I think the internet holds our feet to the fire much more than IRL, because in a very real sense everything we do online is documented. Is that bad leveling or good leveling? Or just hair-raisingly scary?

Jason's picture

What this article fails to address (and I suspect the author intends to address later) is that the PhD can and should be able to offer arguments that are clear and sound. As they did so, they would gain respect based on their demonstrated love for truth and ability to discern it and argue for it well. If they cannot, or will not, do this, then they will fail to garner respect. In other words, the forum technology levels the playing field for ideas. If an eighth grader can offer better arguments than the PhD, he will and should gain respect. After all, he has demonstrated commitment to, and skill with, a reasoned pursuit of truth.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Jason, this is a good point though there are limits on how well it works. Respect is an expression of the values of the respecter. For example, in some of the street gangs of Chicago or LA, you get respect by being the first to kill somebody at random. ... an extreme example to show what I mean.
So those who value sound reasoning, clear thinking, etc., will respect people who demonstrate those skills/habits. Those who don't value them will not be impressed.

And in the completely open forum environment, there is often going to be a dominance by people who do not value clear thinking--especially if the issue is an emotional one by nature.
The positive side is that forums don't have to be completely open... and there are the factors of "invisible/silent audience" and time. This keeps the posts of a person (PhD or otherwise) who posts thoughtfully from being a complete waste even in discussions where foolishness seems to be dominating. I'm hoping to be more clear about the silent-audience and time factors in a follow up post soon.

farmer Tom N's picture

Aaron,

I tend to disagree with your points for several reasons.

First, while there certainly are those who are highly educated that have important and valuable things to say/teach those of us among the ignorant and uneducated ranks. Biblically there is a distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Far too often it seems the educated have a piece of paper which tells them they have achieved the status of a learned person, which in fact means they completed the required course work for some institution, and that person is ignorant of reality. "Professing themselves wise they became fools." Or as Paul told Timothy

Quote:
2 Timothy 3:7
Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Second, these educated people have a haughty and superior attitude, assuming that because they have a sheepskin from Uncle Joe's School of Bible Learning, that they are an authority on every subject known to man, including interplanetary travel, and cooking with gas. Thus they act on internet forums as though their degree in Christian Education means that they have accumulated all available knowledge on eschatology.

Thirdly, You down play the leading of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who are "uneducated". Since the "uneducated" do not have a sheepskin as proof of their "learning", they become easy targets to accuse of being ignorant of the truth, or of being unable to understand the "deeper" concepts of thought. Never mind the fact that with the Holy Spirit"s filling and a deep commitment to the study of the Word of Truth, it is very possible that the "uneducated" may have been lead of the Spirit to the exact same Truth, as the educated person learned after hours of being spoon fed it in a classroom.

BTW, I not some rabid charismatic here, claiming that someone can achieve all knowledge simply by a gust of wind from the Spirit. But, having a small amount of education, followed by years of personal study in the Word and and study from other "learned" men, it is possible to have "Knowledge of the Truth", even without the sheepskin.

Maybe a better solution to your conundrum would be a reliance on objective Truth, rather than trying to ascertain rightness or wrongness on an issue based on the commenter's "education" history.

I know several people who have multiple degrees, who I would not ride in a car with if they were driving, and I certainly would not let them advise me about how to fix a flat tire. Education is a very broad word. Sometimes life experience and actual hands on knowledge are superior to book learning.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It's a bit hard to follow your reasoning, Tom.

  • Some educated people are not wise.
  • Some educated people are haughty.
  • Some educated people are yucky to ride in a car with.

What does this prove about the rest of the educated people or education in general?
The reason I ask as that the following statements are also manifestly true:

  • Some educated people are not wise.
  • Some educated people are haughty.
  • Some educated people are yucky to ride in a car with.

Even if we replace all the "somes" with "manys" these descriptions are true of people at all levels of education and lack thereof.

(But I do think your odds are better with one group than the other)

It's also not clear in what way I've downplayed the leading of the Spirit. Uneducated believers can follow the leading of the Spirit. Educated believers can follow the leading of the Spirit. What am I missing?

As for the sheepskin...

Aaron wrote:
The analogy isn't intended to say that you can't have an informed opinion unless you have x amount of education. It's intended to show that differences in education do tend to correlate to real knowledge. The correlation isn't absolute--and I don't think anybody claims that zero non PhDs have the same expertise as PhDs. And nobody claims that 100% of PhDs are wise or worth listening too.

But the fact that there is a high correlation between educational level and real knowledge is pretty obvious: none of us would look for an 8th grader to draw up our estate plan or work on our teeth or give us marital counseling.

drwayman's picture

Aaron - I think that I can pretty much agree with the concept that there is a world of difference between 8th graders and PhD (post hole diggers) in terms of knowledge. PhD's unfortunately are sometimes considered to be intelligent on so many matters because they are in the top 1% of the world educationally and having the PhD is the highest academic degree one can achieve. Nevertheless, a PhD simply assures that the person knows A LOT about the narrow field of study in which they spent several years. A PhD has completed doctoral exams and a dissertation that contributed to the research base of the discipline in which they studied. A PhD doesn't necessarily give someone a pass to be exalted as more intelligent than those without a PhD or that the PhD is knowledgable on every subject. Nevertheless, I think that we are in agreement that there is a high correlation between educational level and real knowledge.

What I find surprising is that the seminal work, THE WORLD IS FLAT, has not been mentioned in this conversation. He proposes that there are 10 forces that have flattened the world. By flattening, he means that countries, which formerly were fairly obscure in the world market, like India, are now able to compete for global knowledge work as never before (p. 7).

The first flattener (leveling the playing field) was the advent of windows and the reunion of Europe (the wall came down) in 11/9/89. The second flattener was the advent of the WWW and Netscape became public in 8/9/95. The the third was work flow software (causing work flowing within and between companies continents faster than ever). The 4th flattener was the ability of ANYONE with an internet connection to upload information to the WWW (think Wikipedia, you tube, open source software, etc). There are more, but interestingly, the first four all revolve around the internet.

So, current 8th graders may not be able to compete with PhD's, however, they have access and opportunity to the same data to which a PhD has access. The future of knowledge and the dissemination of accurate knowledge will greatly change as the WWW continues to "level the playing field." However, I wonder if theology and philosophy will be two areas in which there will never be a leveling as it takes an element of emotional maturity to ponder the greatness of God and the world in which He has placed us.

Pedid por la paz de Jerusalén.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The book sounds like a good read, but I haven't had that opportunity yet.
I think your point is solid about the PhD being a representation of specialized knowledge, for the most part. There's the interdisciplinary stuff and language learning in pretty much any PhD program, though. And by the time you do all that and read a dump truck load of books... you pick up more than just your specialty.

(If anybody didn't know, I don't have a PhD. If somebody wants to pay for it, I'm game though! Biggrin ... and if they can "dilate time" to fit about 20 hrs more into my week. But it's also nice being an advocate for the degree even though I don't have one.)

... and I do know some idiot PhDs. (Don't ask. I'll never name one. Wink )

About 8th grader access to the same info as PhDs. I think some of the flatness celebrators may be overly optimistic on that score. What does "access" mean? They can get the books, articles, etc. But can they read them? If they can read them, can they assimilate them, relate them to a larger body of knowledge, etc.? Without that ability, is there real access?
Sometimes the access the Internet provides is like giving me access to the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider ]Large Hadron Collider .
I could start pressing buttons and just really make a mess.

drwayman's picture

Aaron - You wrote, "What does "access" mean? They can get the books, articles, etc. But can they read them? If they can read them, can they assimilate them, relate them to a larger body of knowledge, etc.? Without that ability, is there real access?"

Can 8th graders assimilate information like a PhD? Not now, that's true. However, as the WWW becomes more prevalent and information is more readily passed around I think that we will have smarter 8th graders.

I see that you work in a school on the side. I would encourage you to sit in on an 8th grade mathematics course and tell me how much you really know. Students are learning at a faster rate than ever before and it is not uncommon to have our prodigy progeny accepted into college at younger ages. With uploading information to the internet, we are having young people discovered for their talent that would never have been discovered 50 years ago. With all the world's information at their fingertips, I think that we will see more assimilation of information, discipline crossover and more correlation of previously divergent concepts. We are having people provide intellectual property from areas of the world that have previously gone unnoticed. There is much potential with having so much information readily available.

You wrote, "I think some of the flatness celebrators may be overly optimistic on that score." I didn't share much about the book I referenced. However, I think that you would find it quite interesting. I think there is a sequel but I haven't read it yet.

However, I have strayed from your topic.

Pedid por la paz de Jerusalén.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

drwayman... it's "close enough" to topic... and interesting.
I believe it's true, at least in some places, that the average 8th grader is more sophisticated and possessed of "more information" than in the past.
The challenge, though, in world of ever increasing data, is to develop wisdom and good judgment to with it. As the data mountain grows, the need for skill in sifting and separating the important from the urgent and/or trivial grows.
... and I'm not very optimistic so far that these skills are growing at the same rate.

Another downside is that the 'Net has an information bias toward the new. What I see is a trend toward more and more ignorance of history. My own generation barely learned any history it seems, and in my (very unscientific) sampling of younger generations, this trend seems to have accelerated. So we seem to be adding lots of info to the front edge without the background necessary to evaluate it thoroughly.

I suspect, for example, that if you ask the average youngish "man on the street" to briefly summarize basic beliefs on human nature, economics and morality, he will not reference anything before the 20th century (many would not reference anything before the 21st century... or before last week.)

On the other hand, there's no question that it's easier than ever to track down even historical info you are personally interested in. In both sermon prep and teaching prep I'm often amazed at what I can find just by keying a few keywords into Google. Not all junk info by any means.
Yesterday, I had this humongous dictionary I was using to finger random topics for student impromptu speeches. Later, someone raised the question, "How do you pronounce gyro--as in the sandwich?" Started to look it up in this monster dictionary then remembered my laptop was two feet away powered up and connected... a few keystrokes and we're hearing the word pronounced aloud.

That sort of easy access to info has to have a cumulative effect that is positive.

But there are trade offs. The near-messianic hope some place in the society-transforming power of the I'net is definitely a vain hope.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Technological aptitude is often mistaken for 'intelligence'. IOW, raise your hand if you have one of your kids program the DVD player or debug your computer? Uh-huh, I see that. OK- now raise your hand if you have your kids make financial decisions for the family? Right.

There are different kinds of intelligence. The problem IMO is one of mutual respect and civility. Length of days and even brilliance are never license to be a pompous jerk, and youth is not permission to be condescending because the gray head can't figure out the GPS on their smartphone.

Access used to be determined by socio-economic factors. Since the dawn of compulsory public education and public libraries, those boundaries have been consistently eroded. It seems that the internet has come along like a bulldozer to finish the job. But access has never determined who will actually dive into the pool of knowledge- most are content to sit on the side and splash a little with their feet. So IMO it still holds true that an older person can be as dumb as a box of dog hair, and a young person can be knowledgeable and wise, because learning, internalizing, and applying knowledge is still dependent on the learner, not just the availability of information.

drwayman's picture

Aaron - We are talking about something that is so new and has so taken the world by storm, that I don't think we (the world) presently understand the impact of the WWW. It reminds me of this quote, "If the television craze continues with the present level of programs, we are destined to have a nation of morons. - Daniel Marsh, 1950" and this by Bill Gates from the early 1980's, "640K ought to be enough for anybody."

Then we have these interesting facts regarding the internet: One in five couples blame Facebook for their divorce; 69% of parents are friends with their children on social media; and Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears have more Twitter followers than the entire populations of Sweden, Israel, Greece, Chile, North Korea and Australia.

Every minute 24 hours of video is uploaded to youtube. Wikipedia, if it was in print form would be 2.25 million pages long and would take the average reader 123 years to read it. However, before the reader even got 18 months into reading, the information in wikipedia would have doubled.

Social media has overtaken porn as the number one activity on the internet. Information is the fastest growing element on the world and grows 10 times faster than physical production http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2006/02/the_speed_of_in.php

The US military established a whole separate command with its own General just to control information and cyberattacks that affect the security of our country and our allies.

So, I state all this to say that we don't know what the effect of the WWW will be on the world. Nor do we know what the WWW will do to those individuals who have taken time to selectively concentrate their studies so as to have a niche in the job market. I suspect, that over time, academic degrees will go by the wayside or become meaningless and the PhD's of the new age will be those individuals who know how to manage this huge load of information that is at our fingertips.

You wrote, "I suspect, for example, that if you ask the average youngish "man on the street" to briefly summarize basic beliefs on human nature..."
I believe if you ask, you will find not a personal conviction on basic beliefs but you will find that he is able to give you a quick synopsis from a google search, quoting the expert. Expert is defined as the web site that has the most hits and/or has the flashiest, hippest-looking website. I'm afraid that the WWW is advancing pluralism.

--I blame Bush-- LOL

I could go on and on about this subject and find it extremely interesting as well. Your last statement is true that there is a messianic hope for the WWW but we know that Jesus is the only way to have true hope. Fortunately, with all the foibles and dark side that there are regarding the WWW, this is also the greatest opportunity that Christianity has ever experienced to disseminate the Gospel. I'm grateful for such online opportunities as Sharper Iron where there can be meaningful, irenic discussions that can show the world that Christians can get along. And if Christians can get along, maybe there is something real there...

I'm really glad that Al Gore invented the internet. LOL

Pedid por la paz de Jerusalén.

Charlie's picture

Dr. Wayman, your posts themselves illustrate some of the issues at hand. They are indeed full of information, and moreover, they are fun to read. I think I could listen to you for hours. And that is, in itself, part of the problem with the internet, no? Raw information does not equal productive learning. I can get sucked into cracked.com (language disclaimer) or Mentalfloss and learn all kinds of things, but most of the time, they don't actually help me achieve my objectives.

I see the internet as similar to demolition explosives. They are incredibly powerful; people with them can do things that might be well nigh impossible for people without them. But not just anybody can use them without creating a horrible mess. Training, experience, judgment, and clearly defined objectives are vital for success. The internet is similar.

I use the internet often for my scholarship. Without it, I could not get access to many foreign-language journals and ancient-language primary sources. I could not easily collaborate with others in my field who live far away. It would take me much longer to find certain very useful public domain resources. But, this is the key. The internet only facilitates me in doing the things I'm already trained to do. I already read Greek and Latin, thus Perseus Project and TLG are useful to me. I already know how to sift through better and worse secondary literature, thus databases such as ProQuest and JSTOR help me. I already have a solid education, so I can evaluate what I find on Wikipedia.

Someone who does not already possess a solid educational background and developed research skills is not going to be able to use the internet in a truly helpful way. They will drown in the data rather than cross the ocean on it.

On the other hand, I am most favorably inclined toward the internet just for the "pluralistic" nature that you mentioned. Twenty years ago, a Christian could think that the church he or she was raised in was the normative church. Surely, all Christian churches (or at least all good ones) are like mine, and my pastor speaks for Christendom. Today, that's hardly possible. Authoritarian leaders can't control the flow of information anymore. Curious people will be able to break out of narrowness and irrationality.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

drwayman's picture

Charlie - I really appreciate your kind words. I'm just about spent on this subject so I don't think you will be able to listen to me for hours Smile

You made an interesting comment, "Training, experience, judgment, and clearly defined objectives are vital for success. The internet is similar." I don't know enough about this subject to know if I am speaking intelligently or not but your comment spurred a thought. I wonder if the future academic degrees of influence will be those individuals who are trained in the use of the WWW. I'm not talking about IT jobs or internet project management but those who are trained how to influence our culture in meaningful ways with "defined objectives" I would think that these academicians would know how to ingest, organize, and disseminate the plethora of information found on the WWW. The question is, "who is going to teach others how to do it?" It seems that there needs to be an educational innovator who will blaze the trail.

The WWW may lead to a flattening of culture as well. Universities are rethinking what it means to plagiarize. For example, here is an article out of Ball State University that addresses culture and intellectual property: http://cicsworld.centerforics.org/?p=946 It appears that education is taking on a new face due to the many cultures being represented on the WWW.

Before I get too wordy, I work for an educational innovator and make a good living by working on line. Over the last seven years of working for this institution, I was also able to secure a contract with the DOD, live in Europe for three years and maintain my online presence even while visiting four continents all the while interacting with a nearly global student population. I'm not saying that to brag but rather to relay how the world is changing. It used to be if you had a business in a couple of neighboring cities you were outstanding. It was predicted that the generation behind us (I'm 49) would be an multinational community in regard to business. However, it appears that our generation is already doing international business and even further, we are doing global business. So, that makes me wonder what future generations will experience when they have always had the internet, global business, etc.

I'll stop with this quote from Friedman (p. 213), "What we are witnessing is a mad dash - born of fifty years of pent-up aspiration in places like India, China, and the former Soviet Empire, where for five decades young people were educated, but not given an outlet at home to really fulfill their potential." and (p. 214), "these new players are often stepping onto the playing field, legacy free, meaning that many of them were so far behind they can leap right into the new technologies without having to worry about all the sunken costs of old systems. It means that they can move very fast to adopt new, state-of-the-art technologies..."

Here is a real live example: http://www.geekologie.com/2011/10/internet-for-everyone-indias-35-comput...

Pedid por la paz de Jerusalén.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

drwayman wrote:

I'll stop with this quote from Friedman (p. 213), "What we are witnessing is a mad dash - born of fifty years of pent-up aspiration in places like India, China, and the former Soviet Empire, where for five decades young people were educated, but not given an outlet at home to really fulfill their potential." and (p. 214), "these new players are often stepping onto the playing field, legacy free, meaning that many of them were so far behind they can leap right into the new technologies without having to worry about all the sunken costs of old systems. It means that they can move very fast to adopt new, state-of-the-art technologies..."

Emphasis in above quote mine.

Your quote here illustrates Charlie's point very well -- the ones that are really taking advantage of this new playing field are already educated.

Along those lines, I think we are on the brink of a sea change in education, and the internet may well be a part of that. College education costs are increasing so fast (and faster than their relative worth in the degree holder being able to use that education in the job market), that education may well move partly (or even completely) on line in order to keep costs down and still be able to pay for good professors. I know that online educations in the past have suffered from being shady and worthless (and in many cases, deservedly so), but the idea that we have to be present in a classroom to learn as well is simply not true. Even personal interaction with a professor would be able to be done with a computer, microphone, camera, and a fast internet connection. This would allow the student and teacher to speak with one another, the teacher to examine the student's work in real time (of course assignments can also easily be submitted by email or other online transfer, like being moved to cloud storage). Workgroup software, already used in corporations, would allow students to complete projects as a group, do experiments together, etc. While today's webcams, internet speed, software, and other resources may seem too primitive to do what we want them to do, they are improving almost as quickly as the internet, since increased speed and access to data allows even better tools.

In short, good online access would give me just as much access to teachers and classroom/library resources as I in reality had when I was attending class and waiting for office hours. No one has yet done a really good job of being able to educate using the new resources and have it be "the same" as a regular on-site college education, but I have no doubt it's coming, and I believe it will be here sooner than we can imagine.

Of course, education does not equal wisdom, any more than being able to manipulate and sift through large amounts of data does. Wisdom will still come mostly through training, starting with "the fear of the Lord" as Proverbs puts it. But the ability of the education elite to keep knowledge locked up and accessible only to those of their class is quickly decreasing, and for those who have the willpower to dig in, they will be able to learn as much and work as well as PhDs, so in the future it may be necessary to have other ways to evaluate one's fitness to serve in a particular capacity. I'm fairly certain that just being able to use the available data will still not be the same as being wise enough to know when and how to use it, any more than it is now, but the internet itself may not just be responsible for increasing data access, but in facilitating good learning as well.

Dave Barnhart

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