The story of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes, later adapted into the popular musical Man of La Mancha, is about a man who “lays down the melancholy burden of sanity and conceives the strangest project ever imagined: to become a knight-errant, and sally forth to roam the world in search of adventures to right all wrongs.” In a famous scene, he encounters windmills, which he sees as dangerous giants, and attacks them. He does this for the sake of his quest to return chivalry and virtue to the world which has forgotten these ideals. His dedication to his beliefs and convictions inspire a simple farmer to become his squire and a prostitute to discover within herself the lady “Dulcinea.”
In the past, it was rare for an individual to maintain his or her beliefs when they were radically different from those of the rest of society. Don Quixote found the inspiration for his worldview in books concerning knights and their code of conduct. In the world in which he lived, he was considered insane for not conforming to the rest of society’s beliefs; however, today, he might fit right in, at least in the blogosphere, where it has become common for people to have wildly differing opinions, even on objectively verifiable facts.
It seems that a significant reason why people are no longer united through shared paradigms is the dawning of the Information Age as well as the 24/7 media coverage of world events. The sheer quantity of information spun to advance certain agendas has caused people to see the world through distinct lenses. Because the Internet is so large, it is more likely than not that a person with a certain theory can find entire websites that support it, making it no longer a speculative idea but, in that person’s eyes, fact. This leads to the question: Is the Internet warping our perspective on the world? Have we become Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills instead of seeing things as they really are? I believe that the answer is “Yes.”
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To fully answer these questions, it is important to ask: How were things before, and why did they change? Before the Persian Gulf War in 1990, there were very few television channels. Baby Boomers can recall about three channels, and instead of having stations dedicated to news 24/7, broadcast news was limited to about thirty minutes in the evening. Because of the brief window networks allotted for news, anchors had to choose the stories they considered to be the most important. This naturally resulted in some perspectives and stories getting left on the cutting room floor. Without the Internet to provide information and various perspectives on current events, people had to trust the broadcast journalists. The journalists were sensitive to their responsibility to uphold their integrity and present what they thought was an accurate reflection of the world’s state.
For instance, a large part of why Americans were so excited and supportive of the “Space Race” and NASA was because “the most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, reported on it with contagious enthusiasm and optimism. The American people considered him a vital part of the US space program and the astronauts and engineers. When Cronkite expressed his passion for space exploration, his viewers also began to think highly of the effort because they trusted the opinion of the man who brought them their news every night. In 2006, NASA recognized Cronkite’s key role during the Apollo Moon Landings by giving him a Moon rock piece, making him the first non-astronaut to receive such an honor.
If Cronkite’s role as the voice and father-figure of the American people was not apparent during the Space Race, it certainly became so during the Vietnam War. When he visited Vietnam to cover the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, he saw first-hand the horror and futility of the war. He brought his experience back to the US and conveyed it to the public by condemning the war. Allegedly, after hearing the report, President Lyndon Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
This, coupled with the images journalists captured while documenting the Vietnam War, marked a news transition period. Although many of the US saw events as Walter Cronkite described them, people were also beginning to form their own opinions about the war. The famous photo taken by Nick Ut of the “Napalm Girl” seared itself into the minds of the public. Despite the faith and confidence the U.S. president and government expressed in the need for the Vietnam War, a vocal percentage of the public disagreed. Even though people may have felt negative about previous wars, this marked the first time the public began to condemn their country’s involvement in a war.
The period during which America began to seriously question Vietnam is significant because people began to have more access to information. As a result, the unity of the public’s opinion shattered into many different perspectives and beliefs. People with opposing opinions naturally thought each other were wrong or possibly crazy. In the eyes of the people who supported the war, the protesters could be seen as unpatriotic or drug-addled. In the eyes of the anti-war advocates, the supporters were brainwashed or willfully ignorant.
During the first Gulf War, information became even more accessible. What is now known as the “CNN factor” or the “CNN Effect” began when CNN, the underdog among the big-time networks, decided to cover the new war 24/7. CNN had already specialized in news coverage, so it had enough equipment and people to provide live coverage around the clock when the war began. Despite the criticism that CNN abandoned its journalistic objectivity for the sake of turning the war into an exciting drama, this was the first time when the US could actually see a war happening.
The CNN model was so successful that other networks ended up adopting it, bringing on “experts” and holding panel discussions. It became harder for the government to garner the public’s approval because news networks commented and reported everything as it happened while making demands for government comment. People began to form their own opinions about the world instead of relying on the viewpoint of “the most trusted man in America.” The government now had to contend with the different opinions of millions of individuals who saw events as the news networks presented them and as they began to be presented through the Internet.
As the Internet became accessible to the public and websites became easier to create, the average person had the platform to voice their own opinions. Because there was no clear hierarchy on the Internet, everyone online had the chance to say what they thought about the world and connect with like-minded individuals. If you had a conspiracy theory about the JFK assassination or 9/11, chances were you could find an audience of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who had the same perspective. Even if there did not seem to be anyone who agreed with you, with enough effort, you could probably convince them that you were an authority on the subject or had “inside information.”
As of 2010, more people got their news from various “official” and “unofficial” sources on the Internet than newspapers. Instead of relying on a paternal figure to explain the significance or reality of events, people now go online and see the world as they want to see it, regardless of whether it is an accurate reflection of reality. As opposed to being the lone knight with a beautifully skewed worldview, a person without Don Quixote’s conviction can go online and see the world in an entirely new way.
For example, if a person believes that humans are fundamentally good, they can find numerous websites dedicated to inspiring rescues, selfless acts, and stories of compassion. With enough exposure and interactions with other people who believe that humans are naturally good, our hypothetical person can become resistant to people offline to convince him or her of the opposite. He or she might even view acts that might seem horrific and cruel to others, e.g., a gory murder, through their optimistic perspective. On the other hand, a person could use the Internet as support for seeing a conspiracy in every shadow and for turning windmills into giants.
It is possible to see the Internet as a divisive creation that warps events and twists them to suit a user’s preference; however, I believe that the Internet has great potential for positive social change. Who is to say that Don Quixote was wrong for seeing the world as he did? Perhaps his beliefs that a prostitute was the paragon of virtue, a dilapidated inn was a castle, and a pot was a magnificent helmet were crazy because they were so different from what most people saw. On the other hand, perhaps he saw how things could be and could change the world for the better by acting following those beliefs. If he made people realize their own power to change and become who they wanted to be, does it matter if he was crazy?