Knowledge by the Wayside: Opinions on Social Networks
Casasola Editores' author Roberto Carlos Pérez, one of the most prolific of his generation, gives us his view on social media and its impact in contemporary society. Translated from the original Spanish by Evan Daus.
The premise has been forgotten: human beings are not born thinking. Thought is fueled by constant training and practice, during which man discovers his mission and his place in history.
Confucius once said, “Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.” The purpose of thought is to teach man, and as Socrates and Plato proposed, to help him cope with everyday deaths and realize his only certainty: the tomb.
In a different setting, Descartes proclaimed his famous phrase: "I think, therefore I am." This claim was anchored in the belief that thought is a conscious act of the human spirit. For the philosopher, common opinion or experience are not reliable ways to find the "truth,” that is, that which after doubt finds no rebuttal. Thus, thought unfolds through reason—that is, through the mind which, when enlightened, leads to the undeniable.
Discussing the issue of thought in the 21st century is equivalent to defending the streetcar against the Airbus 380 and the Shanghai Maglev Train, the fastest and most modern forms of transportation, the pride and vanity of our era. But in the overwhelming reality of our time, in which thought has been profoundly changed due to the advent of the internet, one must also mention the credentials of those who once imagined a world in which communication and knowledge would be accessible to all people.
Timothy John Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, was the son of computer scientists. He studied at the Queen’s College, Oxford, and received a bachelor of arts degree in physics at the age of twenty-one. He was an avid reader, and was conscious of the dangers of his invention. For this reason, he said, “It is incredible to see how quickly people learn something with the internet, but it is also incredible to see how quickly they forget it.”
For his part, Raymond Samuel Tomlinson, the creator of email, completed a master's degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Regarding email and grammar, Tomlinson said "I still like complete sentences that are grammatically correct, without spelling errors. I don't always achieve this, and it is irksome to read a message I have sent and discover errors."
It is clear that the storm of progress, the monster that devours its children, walks several steps ahead of our spiritual and intellectual growth. This observation should not be taken in any way as a condemnation, but as an attempt to examine the serious problem that afflicts us.
In a society led by digital technology—in which the humanities are practically dead or agonizing in their university cloisters—the individual, like a drifting ship, finds it difficult to differentiate truth and falsehood, good and evil, the erotic and the vulgar. The philosopher Pedro Feal Veira said that it is highly complicated to discern, for example, “between hoaxes (fake news) and authentic news, or between romanticism and pornography, or between a coherent political theory and populist fervor underpinned by deliberate emotional manipulation by somewhat charismatic leaders.”
In the 21st century, the humanities, the most important front that human beings have created to express the greatest exaltations of the spirit and our passions, are in the shadows, trapped behind the backdrops of the great theater of the world. Without them, we have become vulnerable beings, deafened by the indiscriminate traffic of information and ideas that, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, crush our existence.
Uninformed opinions, the premise and foundation of social networks and massed societies, undermine knowledge and the sense of authority. Men and women, dressed in glitz, overshadow the philosophers, the true writers, the true musicians, the artists who have spent years perfecting their craft; people who in other eras would isolate themselves from the world to gain a deeper understanding of their subject matter.
Knowledge—as vast as the sea—is now countered by opinion. Furthermore, in the age of the hashtag, taste seems to be more important than reason or logical thinking as a parameter for evaluating these opinions. We may like a celebrity, but we rarely ask ourselves if their value stems from talent or the millions of “likes” and followers they have on Instagram. As for celebrities, we should not talk about fame—formerly tied to honor—but rather popularity.
Culture, as we knew it, has been annihilated by the entertainment industry. Nowadays nobody understands a bolero or a tango, popular music in every sense of the word, because to do so involves linguistic effort and sensibility which are rarely considered worthwhile in times when immediacy and instant gratification have won the battle for contemplation.
Carlos Monsiváis and Gabriel García Márquez pronounced the elegy of poetry, the most literary of all genres, saying that it had died in the second half of the 20th century. Octavio Paz said the contrary: poetry (referring to all that "interrogates and accuses us," in the words of José Emilio Pacheco) will never die because in its purest form and its truest state, poetry is used to express the inexpressible: the deepest pains or the greatest pleasures.
One example will suffice: José Asunción Silva, the Colombian poet who composed one of the most beautiful poems in the Spanish language, Nocturno III, is nowadays known only by those who specialize in Modernism. It is astonishing how in the poet’s own beloved city, Bogotá, millions of people have never heard the famous verses of this masterpiece:
A night thick with perfumes, with whispers and music, with wings,
With glowworms fantastically bright in its bridal wet shadows,
There by my side, pressed slowly and tightly against me,
Mute and pale
As if a presentiment of infinite sorrow should stir you
Down to the secretest depths of your nature
On the other hand, young people and adolescents from the Colombian capital and of the whole of Latin America can recite from memory the sad and degrading words of reggaeton that fill the radio and Spotify playlists.
I used the examples of music and poetry, the branches of art that best develop our sensibility. Philosophy, which makes us think, has been exiled from the classroom under the idea that science, technology and engineering are the future of mankind.
How, then, can we avoid the prevalence of uninformed opinions in online communities, universes of "wisdom" in which algorithms and invasive advertising powerfully influence the way that we pass judgement in those bullrings? We have already been maimed by the bull’s horns, and now I can only posit how we have come to this.
In a society of opinions, the teacher, the journalist, or anyone who has dedicated at least ten years of their life to seriously study the humanities, has become an archaic anomaly. In the past, elders were considered true authorities and were looked to for advice and viewpoints. However, virtual platforms have caused a societal upheaval: the humanist is old and in disuse, while young people know best, many of whom are self-styled influencers. In the words of Antonio Francesco Gramsci, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” (Past and Present, 1951).
On the other hand, in societies where specialization is hailed as the greatest triumph and in which workers are overburdened technicians, reflection, as a rule, has been left out of the game. Introspection, a spiritual process of paramount importance, has been demolished for lack of time.
Where do these overworked, tired people go? Not to the theater, nor the museum, nor the library. They go to Facebook and Twitter as a means of immediate distraction, where they pour out their opinions, usually motivated by ignorance or the unhappiness that they feel upon wondering why they are not as successful as their online friends who portray their fake happiness through memes, photos and messages. Intolerance and violence are often masqueraded as opinions because social media has made us believe that having opinions is the pinnacle of freedom.
And what is freedom? Strictly speaking, it is the state in which imagination flies to unknown heights. Thanks to this freedom, music, theatre, poetry, painting, and the arts in general have emerged—the greatest manifestations of human freedoms.
Don Quixote said it best, “Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that heaven has bestowed upon men; no treasures that the earth holds buried or the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as for honour, life may and should be ventured. (Don Quixote, II, LVIII)
In the age of Snapchat, our concept of time has been influenced by social media’s veneration of the instantaneous. The ideas of deep time, time of the soul, about which the mystics spoke, Bergson’s durée and its definition of time as something that has no measurement, have all been fragmented in the modern era. The self is now an excuse for those who wish to express their narcissism through photos and videos. The selfie has further inflated vanity and pride, and has created a rift between people due to their own egos.
Thanks to social media, we are in a constant state of competition. If I cannot travel, if I cannot go to parties, if I cannot dress like the others who show off on Facebook, then I will use my opinions as a dagger to defend myself from disgrace, lest I be known as a loser: the worst insult that a person can receive in the 21st century.
It is enough to read how every day a teenager takes his or her own life because of high participation in social networks. When these young people do not find the validation of their online friends, or when they feel inadecuate compared to their peers, some resort to suicide.
In The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), Sven Berkets foreshadowed a dark era in which verbal expression would become a kind of telegraph writing system, as we see today on Twitter, a platform that constricts messages to a mere two hundred and eighty characters. Syntactic carpentry, typical of those who treasure thought, and which knows no barriers and impositions, has suffered an erosion for which there is no recoil.
We have become passive consumers of information. We do not go out of our way to seek voices of reason who help us distinguish biased or unreliable news from sources of legitimate information. With the "smart" phone, anyone is a journalist, photographer or political scientist, and is followed by legions of zombies who accept without question whatever these new "authorities" post on social media.
We are bombarded with pessimism on all sides, and the end that awaits us is the death of democracy. Having opinions is not enough; we need informed reasoning. Without it, we are left to the mercy of “leaders” and politicians who manipulate our emotions to suit their whims while promising us utopias that will never be.
Roberto Carlos Pérez (Granada, Nicaragua). Músico, narrador y ensayista. Estudió Música en Duke Ellington School of the Arts y se licenció en Música Clásica por Howard University, en Washington D. C. Además es máster en Literatura Medieval y en los Siglos de Oro por Maryland University. Producto de sus investigaciones son los numerosos ensayos aparecidos en revistas nacionales e internacionales. Es autor del libro de cuentos Alrededor de la medianoche y otros relatos de vértigo en la historia (2012), de la novela corta Un mundo maravilloso (2017), y del libro de ensayos Rubén Darío: una modernidad confrontada (2018). Ha sido incluido en las antologías Flores de la trinchera. Muestra de la nueva narrativa nicaragüense (2012), Un espejo roto (2014), Nicaragua cuenta (2018) y SOS Nicaragua (2019). Su cuento «Francisco el guerrillero» fue traducido al alemán y apareció en la antología Zwischen Süd und Nord: Neue Erzähler aus Mittelamerika (2014). Es también editor del libro en homenaje al poeta mexicano José Emilio Pacheco: José Emilio Pacheco en Maryland (1985-2007), de la edición crítica de la novela El vampiro (1910), de Froylán Turcios y de Breve suma (1947), antología original de Joaquín Pasos. Sus áreas de investigación incluyen los Siglos de Oro y el teatro áureo español, el Modernismo y los efectos de la guerra civil nicaragüense en la literatura contemporánea. Roberto Carlos Pérez es miembro colaborador de la Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española y Secretario de la Delegación de Washington, D.C. de dicha entidad. Es también cofundador y editor de la revista Ágrafos.