A ramble...

Conversation to chat rooms
Books to Blogs
Cbs to Cellphones

How the technology of the information age has turned communication into entertainment and redefined knowledge and truth

It all started with the song “Convoy”, a novel little country song about a truck driver talking to his truck driving buddies as they travel the highways. About the same time was the movie “Smokey and the Bandit”, a movie about a truck driver and his buddy running from a crazy state patrol man. Soon following was the TV show “Dukes of Hazzard” - I'm still not exactly sure what that was about. - But their collective popularity sent the CB radio craze sweeping across the country like wild fire. What once was a tool used by law enforcement and taxi services became standard equipment in almost every vehicle. Terms like “Breaker one nine” and “Ten Four Good Buddy” became catch phrases of the day.

It was the beginning of two-way communication as entertainment. Radio and television opened up the world to our living rooms, but it wasn't until technology allowed us to interact with the voice on the other end that it became a game, a toy, a fad. Since then the Internet and later cellphones introduced us to “chat rooms” and “text messaging”. Today, personal websites and “Blogs” (short for “web logs”) are now available to everyone with a telephone. Knowledge and truth, once only contained in books and the halls of academia, are now claimed by anyone who can string letters together (often times in a shorthand that few people can decipher). In many ways, the so-called “information age” has made us both smarter and dumber. Worse, “truth”- once synonymous with “fact, is now defined by whatever the writer claims it to be.

I was about 8 or 9 when my father installed his CB radio in his 1972 Chevy pickup. We must have seen “Smokey and the Bandit” 3 or 4 times by that point – the only movie theater within 20 miles played it for probably 3 months straight. After he installed it, I don't think I ever saw him use it. He'd have it on whenever our family of four crowded into the cab to go somewhere, but except for the occasional burst of static I don't believe we ever heard anything from it. But, he had one! I don't think it mattered to him if he ever actually talked to anyone on the dumb thing, it was the toy of the moment.

Unlike the telephone, which by this time had become commonplace in almost every household, the CB radio offered, for the first time, something that other forms of communication did not. Anonymity. And a chance to listen in – a form of auditory voyeurism, if you will. Those who took advantage of this free form of contact gave themselves “handles” - nicknames that other radio users would recognize, but without knowing the real name of the person on the other end. For example, Bob Smith might give himself the handle “Papa Bear”. Papa Bear might have a friend he knows only as “Orphan Annie”. Neither has ever given the other their real name and they may never meet, but they could carry on long conversations over the radio. But anonymity gave rise to something else: a type of shallowness and even deception that was not found among friends and family before. Maybe worse than that was the fact that you could listen in, unnoticed, to other people's conversations. If you happened to be tuned into the same channel as others who were talking, you could listen in and they would never know it. But, given the depth of the discussions you might hear, this was only entertaining for so long.

Eventually, the novelty of Citizen's Band radio wore off, but another fad wasn't far behind. The early 80's saw the Internet come into common use. While initially the domain of the military and government, the Internet soon came into use by those in academia and very soon after that it became as accessible as telephone service (in fact, dependent on telephone service, so if you had a phone, you could get it). Early consumer providers of Internet access, such as Compuserve and America Online offered not only email – the most common use for the world wide network up to this point - but also what is commonly referred to today as “chat”.

Rather than auditory, as the CB radio was, “chat” is text based communication between two or more people over the Internet. In its earliest stages, text chat was only possible between people on the same network: AOL subscribers could only talk to others on AOL, Compuserve subscribers could only talk to others on Compuserve. It wasn't long, however, until users were able to chat with others not matter what network they were on. Probably the earliest such service was an application of the Internet called “Internet Relay Chat”, or IRC for short. This protocol required users to log in to a “chat server” (a computer dedicated to hosting the chat service) and then join a “chat channel” (a virtual room where others are engaged in conversation). Much like CB radio, users gave themselves handles,or in this case “nicks” (short for “nicknames”), thus preserving anonymity in the same way. Also like CB chatter, one could “listen in”, that is watch others chat without participating, however your presence in the “chat room” would be known to the others there.

Like CB users, Internet chatters soon developed “code words” of their own. Like “10-4” (I read you, or good-bye) and “Breaker 1-9” (hello, is anyone there), that CB users coined, chatters created terms like “LOL” (laugh out loud) and “BRB” (be right back). It wasn't long before frequenters of the same chat room developed their own buzzwords and short hand.

Unlike the CB radio fad, Internet chat continues to evolve instead of die out. Today “Instant Messaging” is not only available to computer users, but also many Cellphone users. This has resulted in creating even more chat terms and short cuts to get one's message across. Herein lies one of the greatest damages the Internet has created in human communication. Unlike what we learned in school about the proper way to write letters and essays, Instant Messaging has it's own rules of speech. The proliferation of shortened spellings (such as “u” for the word “you”, and the initials “W.U.” for “what's up”) has lead to a generation that can barely write the language they speak. The trend has even filtered backward into traditional written communication. A note from a child to her mother may read: “Out w/bff brb”. As such, we have created a whole society of people who are nearly illiterate.

But this is not the greatest threat to mankind's intelligence and wisdom. As the Internet grows, it offers more and more ways for people to connect in good ways and bad. What has come to be known as “Internet 2.0” is a generation of applications that allows anyone and everyone to build their own websites and online videos and put whatever they want out there for the world to see. The ultimate example of this is what is known as “social networking” and the premier provider of this service : MySpace. (http://www.myspace.com)

MySpace is a website – really a web service – where users can create their own web site and link to others web sites, creating groups of friends. From a users site you can directly contact them (if they are online), or you can read messages others have left for them. Users can also post entries on their site as an online journal, or “web log” - “blog” for short. Like chat and instant messaging, the content of these social networking sites tends to be shallow and possibly even deceptive, but again there is that element of voyeurism, the chance to “listen in” on others lives. Other services have followed in MySpace's footsteps, providing “blog space” or even a place to post home videos or pictures for the world to see.

Now, if you are reading this, you are utilizing a blog service. I won't deny the usefulness of these services to help families and friends to stay connected. However, I do feel that “blogging” and other “user provided content” sites present the greatest danger of the Internet. The criminals you see on “To catch a predator” notwithstanding, the danger is to the fabric of human intelligence and what was formerly called “truth”.

The most dangerous example of this is the site “Wikipedia” (http://www.wikipedia.org). This site touts itself as “the encyclopedia anyone can edit”. The theory espoused by the creators is that if you give anyone the ability to contribute to this compendium of knowledge, eventually the articles will become polished to the point where you have the highest quality writing and truth available. The problem is this theory has no safeguards to protect fact. Truth, in this case, is defined by those who care to contribute. The danger lies in the placement Wikipedia has attained on popular search engines. Do a search on any topic and one of the first links presented to you will be to Wikipedia. The average Internet user will be drawn to these articles without stopping to consider that what they are reading may not resemble reality.

Likewise, Blogging has opened up a Pandora's box that has replaced fact with truth as defined by anyone who can type. Doing research on the Internet will now give you a landslide of information, but finding the nuggets of facts among the piles of self-defined truth is becoming increasingly difficult. Searching on any topic will give you conflicting views from hundreds of sources, all equally presenting themselves as truth.

Herein is the danger for all of us. When truth is defined by the individual, regardless of what real fact may be, and couple that with human language being rewritten in the name of convenience and you can see how difficult it is becoming to engage in any form of intellectual conversation. Without a base understanding of what is fact, there can be no discussion that will bear fruit.
I submit a plea to bloggers and contributors to user generated sites: Please, if you present something as fact, give your sources. Make sure your fact is indeed FACT. If you have an opinion (such as the content of this blog entry), make it clear to your reader that it is just your opinion. If your source is another website, don't rely on that, check that site's sources before you type a single word. If we all follow the practices we learned in school about researching the facts and citing our sources, we can reverse the trend that is redefining knowledge and truth.

But that's just my opinion.