Has the exponential growth in our knowledge via digital information left our morals behind?

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16 January
08:22
28 January
16:31

Having been brought up - and started my professional life - in a pre-internet era, I can clearly remember the days when if you wanted to know something you had to actually ask a knowledgeable, experienced human being. It was quite nice actually. Feel ill? Ask a doctor and you'll get the answer. Simple.

That has fundamentally changed over the past 15 years. The proliferation of information means there is no 'the answer' any more, just a series of competing versions of the truth. A series of 'alternative facts' if you like.

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we were told we were facing a one in 15 chance of him being born with Down's Syndrome. As you might expect, this prompted countless hours of internet research. We read thousands of articles, from medical authorities, from parents who'd been in the same boat, from downright quacks.

Of course, we weren't really looking for facts - we were looking for hope. Actually, I clearly remember wishing I didn't have enough basic scientific understanding to be able to discern scientific evidence from nonsense. At the end of the day, none of that huge amount of information we found on Google changed the situation, which had been explained to me at the hospital. But during that long, emotionally-charged search I found exactly what I wanted to hear, I found confirmation of my worst fears, and plenty in between.

This is the context in which the Trump administration's 'alternative facts' narrative is able to flourish. The exponential proliferation of information means we are all free to choose the truth that most closely fits our preconceived ideas, prejudices and misunderstandings. We can always find information that backs up our viewpoint - whatever it might be.

It's summed up perfectly by uber-awesome US alt-country band Drive-by Truckers in their amazing 2016 track 'What It Means' (do dig it out on Spotify):

We're standing on the precipice
Of prejudice and fear
We trust science just as long
As it tells us what we want to hear
We want our truths all fair and balanced
As long as our notions lie within it
There's no sunlight in our ass'
And our heads are stuck up in it

We're certainly living in dangerous times, where narrative trumps fact. But I don't believe that inexorably leads to moral bankruptcy. It's always been thus. The printing press, newsreel, TV, the internet - all have been fingered as the vanguard of moral bankruptcy. It's not the amount of available information that pulls us away from morality, it's the people (men, more often than not) who control the narrative - whether that's religion, the media or the government.

So in that context, in a world where more information is instantly available than ever, and in which the narrative is the same, two things that have always mattered still matter - education, and a sound moral compass. If anything they matter more now than ever.

Education leads us down a road where we can assess competing narratives and decide, based on the available evidence, which is correct. But interestingly, the moral compass which tells us what is right isn't based on empiricism at all. Even as a card-carrying atheist, I'm quite comfortable admitting that it's the broad brush strokes of religion which have shaped our collective definition of morality more than anything else over the past several thousand years.

As primarily social creatures, we've always been - and always will be - as rooted in a moral universe of stories and narratives as we are in a world of facts and truth. And in that fact lies as many risks as benefits. The amount of information out there doesn't change it one jot. My kids will grow up bombarded by information - facts, truths, lies, stories and narratives. My job is to give them the tools to work out which of them which are likely to be correct, and the moral grounding to understand which are likely to be right.

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