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The web is the opium of the people

Those who speak the language of truth and facts are attacked and called liars, traitors and propagators of fake news” (Hedges 2017)

 

Power is knowledge.

Once more than today, power resided in knowledge of facts, history, present and past events, public figures, and a small elite held the levers of knowledge. The people were kept in total ignorance so that they could be steered by manoeuvring their actions, behaviour and choices, which in conditions of absolute darkness, they were completely unaware of. They were prevented from studying, from reading, from listening to the wise. There were few books and where they existed, few were able to consult them, let alone read them. If a poor man had doubts, which could arise from observing the natural and social phenomena that he saw developing around him, he would turn to the ‘wise men’, very often the local clergymen, who in almost all cases would reply: ‘This is how it is, because it is written in the Bible’. If he legitimately tried to go deeper or asked a question on a subject not found in the sacred texts, the answer he received was ‘It is not in the Bible, it means it is not important to know’. And so power went hand in hand with wisdom, and both were handed down in the circles of a small group of the privileged, culture was held by a few, and they did their best to keep the masses in total darkness.

Then came the Scientific Revolution and the condition of almost absolute ignorance began to diminish thanks to the impulse of men who, wanting to go beyond the paths traced until then, pushed themselves to investigate beyond the limits and barriers raised by prejudice and preconceptions. There were economic reasons behind this renewed questing impulse: the yearning for new conquests, for raw materials (precious and otherwise) and for human resources useful for hard manual labour, for dominance in new unexplored territories and their populations; all this induced the powerful to finance these explorations that opened the way to exceptional scientific, technical, geographical and medical discoveries.

Today, things have changed.

Here is the world’s literacy rate according to the Human Development Report.

It is true that in some pockets of the Global South, people still cannot read and do not have the tools to give children access to basic education. School dropout rates are high because families forced by their state of extreme poverty send their children to work in the fields and in small manufactures to produce clothing and/or various objects at a very young age. Another factor is the wars that force the refugees to flee their lands, thus not allowing the children to sit at school desks for constant and regular cycles of study. 

 

In general, however, we can say that almost the entire world population can read and write. The majority of children have access to compulsory schools, libraries are open to all. The Internet is an inexhaustible source of data that can be consulted, studied, analysed. We can say, with due distinction, that knowledge is within everyone’s reach. 

But the powerful still maintain a position of dominance over the masses, in a different form from that described at the beginning of this article, perhaps more devious than in the centuries we identify as the Middle Ages. 

At a time in history such as the present when we are inundated with information, on our smartphones, on our home and office PCs, from the TV, on the radio, the key issue is no longer access to information but knowing how to select the real, genuine, healthy information from the false and useless.

When we are on the train, on the bus, at the bus stop, but also on the street, we see nothing but masses of automatons seemingly lost in their own thoughts, in reality hyper-connected to the internet with their technological tools thanks to which they listen to music, watch videos, read. Sometimes I happened to peer at the screen of the student sitting in the train next to me (“I apologise for the invasion of the unsuspecting student’s privacy”) and observe that he was watching a demented video, or playing a video game, or mesmerised by a video of sweet little dogs.

For the most part, this is how we make use of the enormous mass of data made available to us today: a quantity of junk information that serves only to divert us, to distract us, and to lead us astray from what is valid and useful information, which would increase our cultural baggage and help us better understand ourselves and the world around us.

If once upon a time it was said that religion was the opium of the people, today we can safely say that social networks have taken its place to omnubilate people’s minds and consciences.

So be careful what we read, what we listen to, what we consult on the web. We must always have a critical mind ready in all circumstances to ask ourselves: “Is what I read the truth or just a trick?”.

 

Bibliography and sitography of the article:

– Y. N. Harari, ’21 lessons for the 21st century’, Bompiani, 2018

– Human Development Report 2014 | Human Development Reports (undp.org)

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