“This October has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays all in one month. It happens only once in 823 years.”
Well, isn’t that an amazing little factoid? I read that on-line and did what everyone else did, passed it along to delight and edify my readers. And it’s posted all over the Internet, often with dozens of comments and jokes about how cool it is and how it’s a great month to enjoy the weekend and so on. And as I read on, as my astute readers may have guessed, I was soon pounding my head on my keyboard in amazement and horror. Is the average Internet reader so brain-dead that they believe the most egregious garbage if they see it posted on a website?
Apparently so. Let’s think about this, a year can only start on one of seven days, so there are seven possible basic calendar years. Add leap years, and there are fourteen basic calendars. Period. And one of those calendars only gets used every 823 years? How would that be possible? It’s not of course, all fourteen calendars get cycled through regularly, in fact 2010 uses the exact same calendar as 1999. That’s eleven years, not 823. The calendar above is a copy of an October 1999 calendar, not 2010. Now that my amazement is over, I’m appalled, though not surprised. I read literally hundreds of people’s comments related to this factoid, and maybe one percent of the comments were of the “that can’t be right” variety. The other 99% of people who read it simply accepted it at face value. What the hell is going on here?
Well, for one thing, it’s clear to me that most people are all to happy to succumb to “argument from authority.” Basically that means if they trust the source of some tidbit of information, they believe it. And apparently a huge number of people think that if they see something posted on a blog somewhere, and it doesn’t contradict their world view, it must be true. It’s hard to imagine the five weekends thing as being a threat to any particular religion, politics, or ideology, and that’s apparently as deep as most people’s filters operate.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the Internet is changing society and people, and I’ve not been reassured. Other people have been thinking along the same lines: How the Internet is making us stupid and Is Google making us stupid? Both articles basically make the same case, that the Internet is promoting shallow thinking and multi-tasking over deep thinking and contemplation. And our brains are changing as we spend time online, reinforcing these changes. The second article makes the point that this isn’t the first time this happened. When public education was invented and writing became popular, scholars and thinkers bemoaned that people would become lazy thinkers and forgetful. When the printing press was invented, people had similar concerns, that the printing press would spread shallow garbage and make people less attuned to the great works of the written word. And while there was some truth to these concerns, writing and then the printed word did and do have huge benefits.
I can’t argue against the points raised in these and other articles and research, studies seem to show that lots of Internet use has a measurable effect on how people perform a number of tasks. One study for example had a class divided into two groups. One group used their laptops while listening to a lecture, the other half merely listened. And which group understood and retained the content of the lecture? The ones who didn’t have their laptops open. Basically the laptops were a distraction, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. I dunno though, there’s never been a real shortage of shallow thinkers throughout history, and it’s not exactly a revelation that paying attention is the best way to learn something.
So to some extent these concerns being raised are belabouring the obvious. Sure, the Internet makes it easy to be a shallow flighty thinker, but it’s not like people can’t concentrate and read articles if they want. I make a point of reading articles in their entirely if they look interesting, and my blog posts are getting longer and more in-depth. So if computers and the Internet were an ideologically neutral playing field, sure, they might promote some shallow thinking, but so what? It’s always been that way, and other people would be able to use the Internet to increase their understanding. So this isn’t quite what concerns me about the Internet. I’m more concerned with more widespread effects on our society, or more accurately how the Internet is being used to deliberately manipulate what people think.
The power of the Internet to sway the body politic so to speak. No one predicted the power that television would give to the advertising industry, it completely changed aspects of our society and industry in ways that are still unfolding. And the Internet is not only expanding on that, it has proved to be a powerful tool for any group with an agenda to spread its message and both influence and convert followers. Simultaneously both the largest governments and the smallest extremist group have a powerful new tool to spread their world view. Is this why elements of the US government want to restrict Internet access for Americans?
IDK, my whole point here, if there can even be said to be a point, is that the above illustrated tendency of people to uncritically believe something they read is a tremendous loophole in human society, and a lot of people are actively exploiting that loophole. It’s possible the calendar falsehood in the title may have been deliberately created to study how gullible people are and how to write a message that will be accepted at face value by people who read it. Yes, the Internet is allowing people to program society.
And that scares me.
Postscript: This post is so far my most visited post ever, so I wrote a follow-up post.
(The above image came from a free calendar site so I think it’s OK to use. Credit and copyright: Rocket Calendars. Save your 2010 calendar, it will be good again in these upcoming years: 2021, 2027, 2038, 2049, and 2055. And for future reference, 2066, 2077, 2083, 2094, and 2100.)