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In 2007, the eloquent Miss Teen South Carolina brought to our attention the tragedy that “some people out there in our nation don’t have maps.” Miss Caitlin Upton’s rambling mess of an answer, however, is less cause for concern than the question she was asked: “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” I’ll tell you why. It’s because we don’t care.
Technology journalist Clive Thompson tried to stress that we should care by saying, “it’s a civic virtue to be exposed to things that appear to be outside your interest.” In other words, it’s important to society as a whole for every individual to see, read, and hear information and views that contradict or widen their own, so that maybe one day we’ll be able to locate the U.S.—and every other country in the world—on a map (when we have enough maps, that is). Not that maps aren’t a great resource but thankfully as technology has advanced, we can look to the “Internet” six years later. When the World Wide Web was just getting big, people thought one day every North American citizen would be discussing mind-blowing ideas with their peers in China, speeding up and widening the amount of information shared. In fact the opposite is sadly happening more often; as author Eli Pariser illustrates, “our virtual next-door neighbors look more and more like our real-world neighbors, and our real-world neighbors look more and more like us.” Rather than connecting the citizens of the world in a network of varying and competing ideas, the Internet has become a mirror of our personal interests and views. We’re steadily spiraling into a never-ending merry-me-go-round reflecting ourselves and Kimye. If being exposed to ideas outside our interests is a “civic virtue” as Thompson stated, then it can be said that Internet users have a civic duty to seek out those views and information that challenge their opinions. What do we care about virtue and duty these days? We can do what we like, when we like, and how we like. We can’t stop. Am I right, Miley? (ilysm, if you’re reading this, I don’t mean any of it.)
Here’s why we should care: being creatures of habit, we regularly frequent specific websites of preference. These habits can stunt our growth and learning process. Our Facebook news feed and Twitter feed get more hits than any other source of news, like the Washington Post, NPR, and the New York Times. Illustrating the danger of this fact, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg frankly stated, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” or, if I might add, people dying in Syria. While most would balk at the debasement of human life by such a statement, few could legitimately deny the truthfulness of Zuckerberg’s painfully blunt assessment of human nature. “Americans seem to know less and less about the world around them” and more and more about the “squirrel dying” in their front yard. The habitual nature of our Internet use becomes harmful when we realize how little we actually educate ourselves about what is going on in the world and how much we concern ourselves with what we like, what our friends like, and what our neighbors would like to tell their unborn daughters about Miley Cyrus (sorry, bb).
Not only are we biased and narrow minded in the news we seek out, but news sites that report information about the world around us (i.e. CNN and Fox News) are often also biased. To add to the slant of information we receive, these sites attempt to cater to users by offering a “personalized” version of the news, in which one is served an appealing array of news hand-selected by the viewer. We’re given the option of choosing which news will be sent to us via whichever social media outlet we prefer, thus, narrowing the outside news we might otherwise receive. Convenient, if one doesn’t care what team has the best chance of winning the NCAA Championship, but constricting in the availability of information and knowledge we might gain through exposure to all news rather than a slender selection. Web creator, Nicholas Negroponte predicted this very phenomenon in 1994, when he wrote, “Imagine a future, in which… a personalized summary [of news]… is printed in an edition of one… Call it the Daily Me.” A quick look at the top hits on social media reveals the US’s edition of the “Daily Me” is primarily concerned with cats, twerking, Project Runway, banning One Direction fans from Twitter, and football.
Avoiding being consumed by the riveting cat videos on Youtube is key to truly developing our opinions and choosing in which way to live our lives. Yochai Benkler stresses the importance of learning and reading about a variety of diverse beliefs and news in order to truly be free to “be the authors of our own life choices in some meaningful sense.” We owe it to ourselves and to the rest of humanity to educate ourselves about what’s going on in the world rather than living in our own house of mirrors, stuck in a perpetual reflection of trivialities, like social media, celebrity news, and sports. While Miss Upton was very sincere in her concern that we don’t have enough maps in the States, it really isn’t about the maps. It’s about caring enough to know what’s going on in the world and using the available knowledge and resources to make our lives meaningful. Find something that you can’t get enough of, learn about it, and use that knowledge to better the world. Make your grandma proud.
Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.
Miller, Alisa. The news about the news. TED.com. TED Talks, 27 May 2009. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.
Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011. Print.
Huffington Post. Caitlin Upton, Miss Teen South Caroling, Learns Where Babies Come From. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/14/caitlin-upton-miss-teen-s_n_357843.html
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The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the opinions of the writer and in no way represent those of Strata itself.