For as long as democracy has existed in the modern world, universal education and rapid mass communication have been highly regarded in democratic societies.  An educated people, democrats have assumed, is a people capable of informing and governing itself.  And a society in close and regular communication with its own citizens, and with foreign societies, will be tolerant of itself and of its neighbors, near or distant.  Thus, expectations for modern systems of mass communication have traditionally been high.  Progress in creating and perfecting a global communications system would  expand humanity’s self-knowledge and mental reach to nearly godlike proportions, while bringing all nations and peoples together in a spirit of amity and forbearance.  But as the achievement of universal education, where it has been accomplished, has resulted in universal semiliteracy and semi-ignorance, the realization of efficient global communication has created widespread mental confusion, induced national paralysis alternating with periods of hyperactivity and bellicosity, and aggravated international tensions.  Since the invention of the telegraph and the tabloid press in the 19th century, mass communication has made the world increasingly unintelligible, unmanageable, and ungovernable.

After the yellow press, the radio; after the radio, television; after the airwaves and the cables, the satellites.  And now, the personal computer, the newest and most efficient of an increasingly destructive and disruptive line of idiot boxes, and the internet.

In Liberty and the News, published in 1920, Walter Lippmann observed that

The world about which each man is supposed to have opinions has become so complicated as to defy his powers of understanding.  What he knows of events that matter enormously to him, the purposes of government, the aspirations of peoples, the struggle of classes, he knows at second, third, or fourth hand.  He cannot go and see for himself.  Even the things that are near to him have become too involved for his judgment.

In everyman’s attempt to understand that world better, Lippmann charged, the newspapers (still synonymous in those days with what we now call the media) were more of a hindrance than a help.  This was the result, he asserted, of the haphazard and confused means by which reporters gathered and reported the news and editors decided what articles (dealing usually with highly complex subjects) to print and what prominence to give them.  A further consideration was what tired and distracted readers made of the news the papers fed to them.  Any trial lawyer who understood the business of giving and taking evidence, Lippmann noted, would recognize instantly the problem of dealing with “facts” presented in such a fashion.  Moreover, to pursue the metaphor,

The jury is the whole community, not even the qualified voters alone.  The jury is everybody who creates public sentiment—chattering gossips, unscrupulous liars, congenital liars, feeble-minded people, prostitute minds, corrupting agents.  To this jury any testimony is submitted, is submitted in any form, by any anonymous person, with no test of reliability, no test of credibility, and no penalty for perjury.

Lippmann, conceding that the problem was a vast and vastly complicated one, made no pretense of offering a solution, though he did make suggestions.  One was for the self-reform of the news business before the voters demanded action by the government against the press.  Another was for greater integrity on the part of individual newsmen.  A third was for professionalization of the industry, in part through the establishment of schools of journalism.  This latter suggestion has since been acted upon, to no great effect.  Eighty-eight years after Lippmann’s little book, print journalism and journalists are more dishonest and incompetent than ever, while the media as a whole—print, television, radio—have largely become an extension of the entertainment industry, illustrating the truth of the maxim that no problem is ever solved but simply fades away, having been turned into, or replaced by, another problem.

Today, the internet is popularly acknowledged as the summa scientiae.  In truth, it is the ultimate facilitator, if not always the purveyor, of mass ignorance, mental and emotional distraction, illiteracy, relativism, solipsism, the retreat from society, and the withdrawal from reality.  As with radio and television, it is possible to “communicate” for 12 or 16 hours per day over the internet without ever writing anything worth saying, or reading anything worth knowing.  The computer-internet combination is a prayer answered for people who wish to communicate without thought and—like homosexuals soliciting each other in an airport men’s room—are eager to do so without ascertaining the identity of their partners.

The internet, its enthusiasts claim, by virtue of its unimaginable extension in cyberspace, delivers the universe to our desktop and makes all intelligible.  Instead, the opposite is true.  Whether one views it as an educational resource or as a mode of unlimited communication, the internet lacks the curriculum that is essential for learning and knowledge.  As Churchill would have said, it is a pudding without a theme.  The internet is more shapeless than any splashed-out galaxy, and, being formless itself, it is incapable of communicating form.  Imagine downloading the entire contents of the web, printing it out in hard copy, and binding it into a single book—or a series of volumes composing one book.  The result would be a work of the most complete chaos, quite unlike the library at Alexandria or the British Museum.  Indeed, the internet is chaos: It is simply that we cannot see the formless wood because we are capable of viewing only a single disconnected twig—or website—at a time.  The internet makes the world unintelligible in a way that disorganizes and demoralizes both the individual and the collective mind, as simple ignorance could not possibly do.

Besides the absence of a curriculum, the internet’s other great fault is its want of intellectual authority.  Neither its contents nor the sources of that content have been verified by  anyone with the competence to review and examine them.  Moreover, if competent reviewers were available for the job, they would not be consulted, since it is precisely freedom from every and all authority upon which the internet’s populist appeal as a mode of communication is based.  The internet knows no rules or standards.  Not the blogs, chat rooms, and interactive websites merely, but the majority of what appears “in print” on the web is enough to make the most wary and resentful professional author, veteran of a score of skirmishes with his publishers, long for the overbearing exertions of a New York editor with his fat blue pencil.  The internet, which is writer, typewriter, editor, publisher, publicity manager, distributor, and retailer all in one, encourages writing without reflection and careful research, facile thought and prose over mastery of subject and skillful expression.  In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  In the land of the internet, the man with no mind is one emperor among millions of emperors—an imaginary man wearing real clothes, usually a sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers.  The web is the fully realized domain of the Last Man.  It is democracy raised to the nth power, democracy ad absurdum.  This is why the internet is an object of idolatry, like democracy itself.  It is democracy as it can never be attained in the real world.  Quite naturally, this virtual democracy of the ether is based not on fact but on opinion.

[M]en who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda.  The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information.  But where all news comes at second-hand, where all the testimony is uncertain, men cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions.

Walter Lippmann, in seeking to describe the public press of his day, might have been looking forward to the internet, which, so far from meliorating or obviating the faults of its predecessor, has aggravated them exponentially.

Like the newspaper, but far more convincingly, the internet creates the illusion that it delivers the world to the subscriber’s home or desktop, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” having been replaced with a virtual reality more intense, satisfying, and complete than its wan, open-air original.  Tocqueville noted during his stay in America that Americans, in the absence of a meeting to address, would button-hole individual fellow citizens to deliver a political harangue in which they frequently addressed their audience of one as “gentlemen.”  The Americans, Tocqueville reported—not entirely approbatively—talked of almost nothing but politics and read almost nothing but newspapers.  In modern America, newspaper subscriptions have been declining for decades, and political conversation in public has become a rarity, save among groups of safely like-minded people.  Television news is a bland wasteland, where frankness, honesty, and truth itself are avoided as being “controversial” and “divisive.”  And so we have the internet, where expression is (so far) unregulated, like-minded correspondents are easy to find, and the option of prudent anonymity is available.

But cyberspace is hardly a satisfactory substitute for the coffeehouse, the tavern, the marketplace, the general store, the town hall, the local newspaper office, the workplace, the courthouse, or the hustings.  We may infer from the 19th-century American novel that a great many politically conscious Americans of the era were boors.  It requires no inference at all to recognize that their contemporary counterparts, the bloggers, are simply nerds, intellectually onanistic freaks who couldn’t for the life of them carry a meeting, make a compelling speech, or bring an audience to its feet, let alone hold a satisfying political conversation.  (It may be telling in this respect that internet writers, in attempting to discuss even the most serious subjects, cultivate an aggressively conversational style that includes such inarticulate ejaculations as um and ah.)  Lippmann was only anticipating the internet writers of the 21st century when he wrote,

The environment in which they act is not the realities themselves, but the pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses.  The whole reference of thought comes to be what somebody asserts, not what actually is.

Lippmann recognized further that a culture of opinion is a culture that encourages false hopes, irrational excitements, and belligerent instincts.  As the recent history of the United States—and that of many other countries—shows, this belligerency may exert itself equally in the domestic and in the international arenas.  Thus, strong support among many Republicans and others for the Bush administration’s attempt to subvert the Constitution by making the executive branch more equal than the two other equal branches of the federal government comports with their enthusiasm for the administration’s arrogant military and diplomatic aggression abroad.

So much for mass communication’s contribution to intelligibility and domestic peace.  What has it accomplished in helping to make the world less chaotic and more governable?  The perennial liberal view, originating in the mists of that philosophy’s history, is that to know the other is to like, or at least to tolerate, him.  In fact, a major lesson of human history in the era of mass instant communications is that to learn about the stranger is to discover that he is intrinsically your enemy as well.  Pierre Manent, the contemporary French political philosopher, puts the matter somewhat differently. “[C]ommunication,” he says, “does not produce community.”  Rather, it produces contempt, enmity, strife among the peoples of the world.  By way of example, Manent offers the attacks of September 11, 2001, against the United States by terrorists from Saudi Arabia, long an “ally” of Washington.  This is not an argument calculated to please Francis Fukuyama, but it certainly seems one that Samuel P. Huntington would endorse.

Communication with the stranger entails serious risks, whether the impressions created through repeated contact are favorable or not so favorable.  For example, the majority of Muslims in the Middle East and northeast Africa clearly have failed to be impressed by what they have seen of Americans and American popular culture either at first hand, through personal contact with American troops, or electronically, via American television, films, and music.  While Washington’s uncritical support of Israel during the last half-century was the proximate motive for the attacks on September 11, the perception by Middle Eastern Muslims of the United States as the Great Satan was the broader one.  Muslim activists think they know the enemy from what they have learned of him from television and Hollywood movies, and they are eager for jihad to remove the abomination from the face of the earth.  On the other hand, intercultural communication that creates an enviable impression of the United States abroad frequently inspires a determination among foreigners to emigrate to America, and even to invade it.  Thus admiration, as well as hatred, often injects resentment and enmity, rather than comity and community, into international relations.

Global communications are a constant and ubiquitous goad to ill-feeling and strife, at home and abroad.  Instantaneous news reports are a curse laid on humanity by Mars or the Devil, or both.  There is much to be said for what we moderns would think of as stale news—news received, as Americans in the days of the early Republic received it, three or four weeks after the event, a delay that allowed for the slowing, even the avoidance, of the chain reaction typical of the modern era.  Instantaneous news produces a nearly instantaneous response, and so the sequence of human events has been greatly, and disastrously, accelerated in the last century and a half.

Nowadays, thanks to mass communications and international travel, we all know far too much about one another than is good for any of us, and we are far too much in touch, mentally as well as physically speaking.  Apparently, we like it that way.  Communico, ergo sum.