Society acquits the Information Age from tarnishing our public discourse

Weekly Debates

People of our generation are wired. From listening to music with headphones as we take walks to eagerly tapping away on our keyboard as we engage in social media, we seem to be constantly entangled in the virtues and vices of technology. The Society gathered today to debate the question, Resolved: The Information Age tarnishes public discourse, to contemplate how this development has influenced the interpersonal interactions in society.

Mr. Joshua Donovan (COL ’13) of New York lauded the wonders of technological innovation but elaborated on how an information overload has allowed people to cherry-pick their information, such that different people seem to be dealing with entirely separate realities. In such a world, it’s a no wonder we can’t meaningfully interact with each other in public discourse. Propagandistic websites and sources of media can twist basic incontrovertible facts about pieces of legislation passed in Congress, for example. Mr. Donovan lamented this deterioration of interpersonal engagement by quoting from the Gospel of Matthew: “What good is it for someone to govern the whole world if they have lost their soul?”

On the negation, Mr. Constantine Petallides (SFS ’13) of New York demonstrated his love for all of the Internet by hanging a picture of a “Debate Catz” meme to “check for eloquence” in tonight’s speeches. Mr. Petallides praised the fact that media outlets are no longer controlled by an oligarchic few but rather distributed to everyday citizens through the Internet, expanding the scope of “public discourse” to actually include most of the public. Before, the voices of ordinary people could not permeate beyond their neighborhoods and towns. Now, everyone can be a columnist or blogger. Things can spread across the world in minutes. It is now up to the individual to comb through the mass amount of information available on the Web to determine truth.

Mr. Tim Rosenberger (COL ’16) of Ohio argued that this expansion of public discourse is precisely what has degraded its quality. Dialogue has been stifled by the interjection of excessive information backed by dubious sources that cannot possibly all be vetted. Objective quality of public discourse over its quantity must be the priority. Today, even our least partisan news networks feel the need to put on “theatrics” to woo viewers, for fear that the sensationalism of random Internet sources will draw attention away from objective journalistic news reports. “There are steep costs to the explosion of modern media,” he said.

Mr. Agree Ahmed (SFS ’15) of Maryland proclaimed that the Information Age has been not the destroyer but the greatest facilitator of public discourse. The seeds of the Egyptian revolution were sown on blogging websites and chatrooms; the youth were able to realize that there were like-minded people who were equally disgusted with their government’s brutal regime through the powerful connecting force of the Internet. Through those channels, they were able to organize, unite, and revolt. This information revolution has similarly changed the populations of China, Syria, and many other countries around the world, allowing them to be enlightened by public discourse and even to participate in it. “There was monologue when there should have been dialogue. Public discourse can only thrive when there is a marketplace of free exchange of ideas,” Mr. Ahmed emphasized.

On the affirmation, Ms. Higbee (COL ’15) argued that the Internet has facilitated misrepresentation of facts and people taking things out of context. Mr. Diasti (NHS ’14) contended that such problems of information distortion should be blamed more on our political cycle of unfounded attacks and bitter partisanship. The Information Age creates new forms of public discourse that enhances people’s lives, such as an application called MHealth which fosters direct communication between medical experts and communities. Fellow NHS student Mr. Wang (NHS ’15) said that information overload overwhelms and distorts reality — applications like MHealth will breed a new generation of hypochondriacs. Ms. Murphy (COL ’13) retorted that it’s better to overreact to possible signs of cancer than to die of it. She praised the open source communities that have risen with the Information Age, allowing anyone to contribute to programs that are then available to a wider population for little to no cost. Ms. Wood (SFS ’14) contended that the negation has selectively culled benefits of the Internet without addressing how the information revolution has a whole has turned most of a generation into Facebook and YouTube addicts who “amuse themselves to death.” For the most part, people are not adding anything valuable to public discourse, and a vote for the affirmation would be acknowledging and taking responsibility for this unfortunate development. Mr. Desnick (COL ’13) pointed out that if Ms. Wood’s argument were true, then the resolution should be negated because the Information Age is not at fault for these problems. The people are at fault.

Ms. Brosnihan (SFS ’13) believes in the past as a superior time of interpersonal engagement, when people would discuss their opinions in coffeeshops and chat during Sunday afternoon strolls because they were not pulled in every direction by the Internet. “We’re so lucky to have the Philodemic because it’s one evening each week we’re not all on our phones,” she said. Tia Baheri (SFS ’16) noted that public discourse was pretty tarnished before too, when political attack ads were no less personal and conspiracy theories no less prevalent. She challenged affirmation to prove that the discourse was better before the Information Age in order to carry the resolution: “The nature of public discourse has not changed; only the scope of it has widened for the better.” On the contrary, Robin Giles (SFS ’16) argued that the sheer explosion of quantity of information has only prevented us from fully engaging in ideas. We seek brief summaries of sophisticated ideas instead of giving our full attention to them. Mr. Spagnuolo (SFS ’14) contended that we must be our own arbiters of truth in discerning reliable sources, given the rampant availability of information: “The Information Age presents the opportunity for all to access the truth, if you so choose.” Mr. Miller (SFS ’14) argued that society now discusses information over ideas because of the Information Age. Ideas, or the application of knowledge and facts, have driven society for decades, but we are now losing this intellectual exchange. Chancellor Marsh (COL ’13) pointed out that over 90% of the people present in the Philodemic Room could not have even had their ideas considered a century ago, because they were not males from privileged white Protestant families. Mr. Lim (SFS ’13) contended that more is not necessarily better: “Bad discourse used to be limited to those in control of the soapbox; now everyone has their own soapbox to spew anything.”

In closing, Mr. Ahmed praised the fact that billions of people have emerged from the darkness to join in the public discourse. The Internet as a neutral creation should not be held accountable for how people express their discourse, which has been fraught with ad hominem attacks and sensationalism for centuries. The benefit brought to populations of autocratic and corrupt regimes has been enormous, as underscored by the worldwide usage of the Internet to rally people on the side of justice. Mr. Rosenberger responded by saying that the way we use the Internet is part and parcel of the Information Age. It has damaged the way that we communicate and degraded the quality of information available by giving anyone the attention of an audience.

Mr. Petallides ridiculed criticisms of the public discourse expansion by proclaiming that “giving every man a voice is the definition of democracy!” At the very least, the Information Age allows people to rebut “stupid people” who make erroneous contributions to public discourse, especially because “stupid people will always exist.” He suggested that the affirmation’s arguments don’t refute the resolution at hand, but rather alternate ones such as “Resolved: Democracy tarnishes public discourse” and “Resolved: The public tarnishes public discourse.” To end the night, Mr. Donovan emphasized that there can be multiple causes of tarnished public discourse, but the Information Age is one of them because of the way that it has influenced our behavior and consumption of information. It supercharges sensationalism in the marketplace of ideas at the expense of more valuable forms of public discourse. Moreover, political upheavals against oppressive regimes like the American Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests in China all developed without the Internet: “People can struggle against government without Facebook statuses!”

The Society voted 15-0-32 to negate. The Society welcomes Mr. Rosenberger and Mr. Ahmed as the newest inductees into the Society.

Merrick Points

Mr. Petallides: 5
Mr. Donovan: 4
Mr. Ahmed: 3
Mr. Spagnuolo: 2
Mr. Dulik: 1

Merrick Totals

Mr. Spagnuolo: 15
Mr. Dulik: 11
Mr. Petallides: 8
Mr. Donovan: 7
Mr. Snow: 7
Mr. Berryman: 6
Ms. Wood: 5
Mr. Wilson: 5
Ms. Wynter: 3
Ms. Ringwald: 3
Mr. Askonas: 3
Mr. Ahmed: 3
Mr. Dinneen: 1
Mr. Quinn: 1

ELD,

Chloe J. Krawczyk

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