Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Misinformation Age

Van Jones has some must-read commentary in the New York Times today. Check it out:

"Anyone with a laptop and a flip camera can engineer a fake info-virus and inject it into the body politic. Those with cable TV shows and axes to grind can concoct their own realities. The high standards and wise judgments of people like Walter Cronkite once acted as our national immune system, zapping scandal-mongers and quashing wild rumors. As a step toward further democratizing America, we shrunk those old gatekeepers — and ended up weakening democracy’s defenses. Rapidly developing communication technologies did the rest.

The only solution is for Americans to adjust our culture over time to our new media technologies. The information system gives us more data than ever before, faster than ever before. But we don’t yet have the wisdom in place to help us deal with it." (Read the whole thing here)

Jones is responding to his own experience as well as that of the government employee falsely accused of racism last week. I would go further though and frame the issue in explicitly spiritual terms.

The misuse of communication technology is not a new phenomenon. Commenting on the primary communication technology of His time, Baha'u'llah wrote the following:

"the pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 39)

What was true in the 19th century is even more true today. The misuse of communication technologies, prompted by partisanship and political prejudice, threatens to undermine the promise of these technologies. Left unchecked, the Information Age may very well devolve into the Misinformation Age. Perhaps it already has.

That people are able to come up with ways of misusing communication technologies as swiftly as they emerge represents a dynamic described by 'Abdu'l-Baha during his visit to the United States in 1912.

"No matter how far the material world advances, it cannot establish the happiness of mankind. Only when material and spiritual civilization are linked and coordinated will happiness be assured. Then material civilization will not contribute its energies to the forces of evil in destroying the oneness of humanity, for in material civilization good and evil advance together and maintain the same pace." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 109)

The answer to the concerns Jones is raising lies in paying equal attention to material and spiritual progress. Communication technologies will fulfill their highest potential when this takes place.