“Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own.” Carol Burnett
Truth is a fragile thing.
The century had just turned, and we survived the Y2K bug’s potential collapse of civilization. But another sign of the dangers that the information age offered entered the bullpen at work. The customer service manager for the medical manufacturing company I worked at came running in to show me the horror that she had just discovered.
“Since you love cats,” she said, “I think that you should see this.”
She handed me a page she printed off of a website that detailed how to create Bonsai Kitties.
What’s a Bonsai Kitty? It’s a kitten grown inside a bottle.
“At Bonsai Kitten, we achieve this by placing the kitten into a rigid vessel soon after birth, and allowing the young cat to grow out its formative time entirely within this container. The kitten essentially grows into the shape of the vessel! Once the cat is fully developed, it is removed (or the vessel broken to remove it!), producing the lovable, furry pet you’ve always wanted, but it remains in the shape you’ve always dreamed of! There is virtually no limit to the eventual shape of your pet.” Bonsai Kitten Website
The website offers a step by step process, complete with photos, detailing how to grow a kitten inside a glass jar to maturity.
Being a cat lover herself, she was visibly upset at her discovery. She couldn’t understand how anyone would subject a kitten to the torture of living inside a square glass bottle and deforming it into any shape you want!
I looked over the page she printed, with the photo of cat’s face smashed against the glass. I began to think that it was probably a hoax. After all, contrary to the claim made on the website, the cat wouldn’t be able to breathe, much less relieve itself in such an environment. At least, not in a way that it would stay alive.
“I don’t think that this is real,” I said.
“It has to be real,” she replied, “it’s on the internet.”
It took a while to show her the problems with this method, with the assumption that it was “true,” and finally her fears were removed. Later I discovered that it was a hoax that caused a lot of concern to many people who, like our customer service manager, thought that it was real.
This event, however, taught me an important lesson, and also forewarned me about a potentially serious problem that the new technology was creating.
A cultural vestige we have in Western Culture can best be summarized as if something is written down, then it must be the truth. This idea comes from two different sources.
The first source comes from our Judeo-Christian heritage with the notion that the Bible is written, free of error, and guided by the will of God. This idea forms the foundations for authority in the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and it the reason why that are also referred to The Religions of the Book.
In this source of our cultural vestige, the idea that truth is revealed through the written text and that it is more solid than something that is spoken. The spoken word is fluid and prone to being recontextualized based on the moment. While the written word is objective and more solid. It is for this reason that when someone read something written, many feel that it has the same authority as is ascribed to the Bible.
The other source comes from the pre-internet process of getting a work published. Until recently, self-publishing wasn’t really an option. Instead, to get a work published an author had to submit their work and have it scrutinized and judged to be worthy of being printed.
One of the steps in the process was fact-checking the claims made by the author. If the publisher determined that the work wasn’t actuate, then they wouldn’t publish, because of the legal liabilities such as defamation, slander, and libel. No one wants to be sued, it’s bad for business.
However, the internet has given everyone the ability to become a writer. And with this freedom of self-publishing, many people with little or no training in writing, research or using evidence and logic to examine their point of view are pumping out what they feel is right without a second person double-checking their work.
This has resulted in many works being published, mostly online, but also in print and e-books, that fail to meet the standard of reasonable accuracy. Today, most people will be able to find someone who has written a blog, an article, or full book about a subject, no matter how fantastic or ridiculous the claims might be.
Many sources suggest that today more information is being published than any other time is history and that the amount will continue to increase. Without some process in place to evaluate the accuracy and “truthfulness” of what is being published, we are going to find ourselves in an even deeper hole of vagueness, rumors, and falsehood.
When I started to realize the power of the internet, and it ability to present a wealth of knowledge to everyone with access, I was hoping that this would bring about a desire to rethink our educational system.
I was hoping that instead of training students to regurgitate the information needed to pass a standardized test, and then forget the knowledge, I was hoping that we would begin to train students to use our abilities in reason and logic to think through what information they would read.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. More and more, public education seems focused on teaching students to pass the standardized test, and so the process of regurgitating and forgetting is more prevalent than thinking skills.
This is a problem that needs to be addressed. If it is not, then it not going to be little kittens grown in glass boxes. Instead, it is our population that is being grown in boxes. Glass rooms, defined by whatever standard someone has. And that standard could become a process of dumbing down the population, and this is at odds with our ideas of democracy.
Our society, more than ever, needs to focus on learning to think correctly, otherwise, we are setting the stage for the world that George Orwell foretold in 1984. Where truth is not truth, and alternative facts are just a real as facts based in consensual reality.
Unfortunately, we as a species are gullible, and tend to let our emotions tell about the world we live in. Because of this, we are racked with cognitive biases that gives us a tainted view of reality. I think that we each have a personal responsibility to correct our biases, to learn to see the world for what it really is, less we become slaves to our illusions.
Like the hoax of the Bonsai Kitty, there are people who like to use our biases and guides us in the direction that they want us to follow. They want to place us in a box of their choosing, and unless we take personal responsibility, they will get their way. To me, that is the real nightmare.