As many more learned than I have claimed, the Internet weakens top-down authority by scattering formerly protected or hard-to-access knowledge sideways to everyday people. In the decades that followed Gutenberg’s printing of the Bible, a quote among the clergy noted the “the Jewel of the elites is in the hands of the laity.” So it is increasingly today.
JP Rangaswami wrote that “the web makes experts ‘dumb’ by reducing the privileged nature of their expertise.” Jay Rosen noted that the Internet weakens authority by overcoming what he calls “audience atomization.” The result is “The Great Horizontal,” and it’s changing everything. “One of the biggest factors changing our world,” he wrote, “is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number.” And then there’s Rishad Tobaccowala’s great quote from 2004: “We have entered an empowered era in which humans are God, because technology allows them to be godlike.”
Make no mistake. This is and will impact every hierarchical institution in the West, as long as it is allowed to continue, and that’s a pretty big “if.” Those organizations that benefit from the status quo are doing and will do everything in their power to stop it, and it’s going to get very ugly before we arrive at a reinvented culture.
One area of hierarchical authority that’s being almost unnoticeably transformed is parenting. Every generation’s teenagers go through a period when they’re convinced they know more or better than their parent’s generation, but this time, it may actually be true. Armed with knowledge at their fingertips — and the fearless ability to find it — it’s a useless proposition to try and BS any teen today. Reasoning must be backed up by facts, because kids can challenge any justification for behavioral limits aside from the sheer weight of authority. The flip side of this, however, is that they can also see and read about real dangers that only parents could impart in days gone by. Poking your eye out, face freezing, going out with wet hair, running with scissors, the bogeyman, and a hundred other older methods of making children mind are now subject to a simple Google search.
This has vast political ramifications, too — unintended consequences — that will redefine how we make things work in the West. Young people learning to search and follow links also learn the associative nature of everything. Unknowingly, as Peter Lurie wrote in an important 2003 essay — “Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left: Deconstructing Hyperlinks” — they’re participating in the postmodern practice of deconstruction, and “a community of citizens who think like Jacques Derrida will not be a particularly conservative one.” One of social conservatism’s core principles is respect for authority, but in the world to come, that’s going to have to be earned, not assumed.
Young people eventually take over the world, and it will be interesting to see what today’s current crop will come up with for tomorrow. Absent interference from the status quo, it will most certainly be different than what we have today. It’s unlikely to occur during my lifetime, so I encourage my fellow observers to keep an eye fixed in this direction. There will be tweets and status updates and blog entries and media accounts and books and videos and movies and TV shows on the subject.
Education is also going to have to deal with this easy spread of information and knowledge, and that, too, will demand reinvention.
Who will teach parenting in 2050? Who will write the book for dummies? Perhaps a new institution will arise, but one thing’s for certain: it’s going to be a bumpy ride between here and there.