The Impact of the Internet on Learning, Truth and Communication

March 10, 2011

I wanted to remind readers of this blog of the many resources on the CASE website. Many of the articles, MP3s and even videos are available free. While you need to be a CASE Associate to access everything you might want to check the site out. Below is an extract from an article I wrote for Case # 15 (2008) theme 'Communicate, Cyberspace and Community' which is part of the free resources.

It is indisputable that the Internet has changed the way most people obtain information and communicate with one another. But there are many questions about where it might take us. In particular, I have been contemplating how the Internet impacts on the knowledge we gain from it and the way we view the nature of truth. Does it privilege particular views of the world and specific epistemologies? Does it serve the needs of particular interpretive communities more than others?

I don’t raise these questions as one who fears technology, nor do I raise them with any sense that I know the answers with any certainty. I raise these questions as a constant user of the Internet who wants to understand how it is changing our world. I have been using email for more than 20 years as a daily part of my life; I carry a BlackBerry and can browse the Internet while walking in the street; I write three blogs and read many others; I use the Internet as a constant and valuable resource. I know the wonderful benefits of the Internet and the many positive things it offers. But I also have a concern about the impact it has on my life and on the lives of others.

In one sense, the Internet poses no more problems for Christianity than the cinema, television, radio or even the printed word in all its forms. The Internet is just a tool, like the book and the DVD. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that tools are the means by which we understand the world. We have access to material tools that help us to accomplish tasks (e.g. a screwdriver, pencil, computer) as well as psychological tools that enable us to understand our world (e.g. words, letters and numerals). Mathematics and language as symbolic systems are broad examples of psychological tools. Hence, the Internet like other tools is simply a means to understand the world. 

Like other tools the Internet (by which I mean the electronic network that allows us to exchange data in varied forms including social networks, communication tools, web-based resources, sound and video archives etc) is used as an extension of cultural groups (e.g. the family, school, church etc) and its use as a psychological and material tool is learnt in these groups. Much of this occurs with no formal instruction. The tools we use reflect the social and cultural groups in which we live and they are applied as we interact with others. Vygotsky argued that tools mediate our thoughts and actions. With Vygotsky’s concept of the ‘tool’ as background it is worth reflecting on the Internet as an example of a tool. Is the use of the Internet as our primary tool for communication and learning different from the use of books, telephones, letters, and face-to-face communication? The answer I think is yes! But does it matter? Well, it might. There are three key differences between the Internet and other tools for learning and communication that I consider in the article:

a) It is used as part of different, more complex and more changeable interpretive communities,
b) It uses many more modalities for communication in much more interactive ways and with little face-to-face human contact.
c) It provides a much richer tapestry of semiotic opportunities and as such offers a less dominant place to the written word.

I conclude my article with these words:
As we confront our postmodern and sceptical world we need to understand that the Internet can be friend and foe, slave or master. We need to use it as a window on our world and engage with cyber communities for the sake of the gospel. Not in silos of common and accepted beliefs, ideology, culture and a uniform worldview, hoping for the lost to stumble in. Rather, we need to seek out communities of common interest based on common human needs and concerns. We need to approach cyber communities like physical communities: we can be in them without necessarily sharing the same worldview. While there is still a place for Christian communities of interest on the Internet, we need to get beyond an ‘echo chamber’ experience. The Internet has many self-referential communities of interest that are simply silos of like-minded people who hardly make contact with others who hold different worldviews.

You can download the article HERE, view other resources HERE, or simply visit the CASE website HERE.  

You can read all my posts on the Internet and communication HERE (most recent to oldest).

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