A Platform For Reason

by Dean Mattson

gore.gifI like to read books that make me think or teach me about something new. Which is why I’ve made it a rule to never read a book written by a politician. Instead of challenging your thinking, they generally want to flatter it so you’ll like them better.

But I recently broke my rule to read Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason. It’s very much a political book, but there’s also an interesting subtext to the book that’s very similar to the argument I made in “A New Mindset” except Gore discusses its effect in political terms.

Here’s Gore talking about the impact of television:

“Ironically, television programming is actually more accessible to more people than any source of information has ever been in all of history. But here is the crucial distinction: It is accessible in only one direction. There is no true interactivity, and certainly no conversation. Television stations and networks are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas contributed by individual citizens.

“So unlike the marketplace of ideas that emerged in the wake of the printing press, there is much less of an exchange of ideas in television’s domain because of the imposing barriers to entry that exclude contributions from most citizens.” (p. 16)

He goes on to explain how average people are essentially shut-out of the entire process. We are disaffected for a reason. Since the only way we’ve been able to be reached is through expensive television commercials, politicians have become even less interested in what we think or educating us to what they’re views really are. Instead we’re polled so they can find the most effective ways of manipulating us.

Like I do, Gore thinks that the much more participatory nature of the Internet can have a transformative effect:

In fact, the Internet is perhaps the greatest source of hope for reestablishing an open communications environment in which the conversation of democracy can flourish. It has extremely low entry barriers for individuals. The ideas that individuals contribute are dealt with, in the main, according to the rules of a meritocracy of ideas. It is the most interactive medium in history and the one with the greatest potential for connecting individuals to one another and to a universe of knowledge.

An important distinction to make is that the Internet is not just another platform for disseminating the truth. Its a platform for pursuing the truth, and the decentralized creation and distribution of ideas, in the same way that markets are a decentralized mechanism for the creation and distribution of goods and services. Its a platform, in other words, for reason. (p 260)

Given some of the things you see on the Internet, it’s sometimes hard to see that the Internet could live up to those expectations, to become “a platform for pursuing the truth” and “for reason”. I hope it does, but I don’t think people necessarily come by these skills naturally. They need not only to have the right knowledge, but to believe they have the power to make a difference. They need to not only be able to write and speak, they need to know how to listen and react. They need to know not only when to act individually but how to act as part of a group.

In other words, there’s still room in the future for teachers, our role might have to adjust a little.