The question of whether or not we live in an “enlightened age” in our country is an interesting topic when thinking about the internet and mass media. In politics, the internet and web media is used by politicians as a tool to help spread their messages. These messages do not necessarily contain truths, and are often misconstrued, but nonetheless spread to millions and millions of citizens across the country. Immanuel Kant would see the media as an extremely negative force – one that puts immense pressure on individuals to not seek out answers for themselves, instead relying on websites, forums and videos on the internet to tell them what to think.
Kant addresses the topic of enlightenment in his short essay, “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” Kant argues that enlightenment is attained by having the courage to use reason and understanding to pull oneself out of the lazy habits of following others’ guidance. He affirms that while we can use this reason to exceed immaturity, we must do so not just in private life, but more importantly in public life, so that others may be affected by our actions and expressions. While most occupations require duties and obligations to be obeyed and not questioned, one is allowed to and should publically “express [their] thoughts regarding the impropriety or even injustice” of anything they feel necessary, even if it is related to their job.
The public aspect of both observing and speculating on information has become incredibly relevant in modern times as it is extremely simple to turn on the computer for news or opinions. Even if you are online and not trying to hear others’ opinions, one is often force-fed politics—be it via commercials, pop-up ads, or friends’ status updates on Facebook. While this technology can often quickly and broadly help expose inconsistencies or false information, it can also magnify the effect of such spurious info.
Admittedly, there are examples of online media types that can facilitate enlightenment, such as certain discussion forums, blogs (such as this one), and news sites that present truthful information with minimal biases. These forums and blogs provide a straightforward way to get one’s opinion out there for everyone else to see and respond to. In addition to being easy to use, many of these sites connect people from many different backgrounds from all over the world; a diverse group of opinions can be brought to the table. However, the vast majority of internet websites and forums are not for the purpose of pure learning and understanding; many are motivated by either self-interest or profit, and therefore are not valid tools for reaching enlightenment. Many of the forums are centered on certain hobbies or interests, meaning the users often have very similar views and do not learn from one another. If someone comes online and posts an opinion that goes against the beliefs of many forum members, they are often shot down by the majority and not given a chance to explain their point and have others try to understand it. The general lack of policing on the internet means that while there is the opportunity for open, intelligent discussion and a chance for everyone’s voice to be heard, these freedoms are often abused and the lack of policing means that it can be hard to sort the useful discussions that could be enlightening from the inadequate ones.
This situation is somewhat of a paradox, as our contemporary society is thought of as one of the most tolerable places in the world to practice free speech and exercise one’s freedoms of expression. These freedoms are what Kant states as the tools towards achieving enlightenment, yet the media has become such a powerful force that it can easily counteract the available freedoms by allowing individuals to remain lazy and simply follow everything that is said by others.
As technology continues to advance, will modern and future forms of media put an even more serious constraint on the next generation’s path towards enlightenment, as it becomes easier and easier to hear the opinions of others?
“An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” by Immanuel Kant