I feel lucky to live in such enlightened times. Even now, my days are often interrupted by bursts of suppressed curiosity or existential terror, so I shudder to think how I would fare in a world without instant access to other people’s opinions.
Today, if I can’t decide what to have for dinner, I can go on the Internet and find a hopefully-grammatically-coherent list of 17 Amazing and Effortless Meals to Cook on a Friday Night in Late May. And I’m home free! There are only 17 options; that’s all I need to know! The task of cataloguing late May dinner options has been outsourced and my precious mental effort has been preserved for future use.
Imagine my relief when I discovered that a list of The 32 Most Inspiring Pictures of Cat Faces on Everyday Objects already exists! I will never again have to wonder which 32 images are the genre’s finest. I noticed a few conspicuous omissions, but the journalism interns have spoken. That book is closed.
When was the last time you were afforded the opportunity to form a well-developed opinion on anything? If you haven’t made a conscious effort, it has probably been a while. If you have a question, the answer can be easily found on the Internet or can be conveniently delivered to your phone by a friend.
Shocking problem: the opinions held by bloggers or (gasp) the friends you query when you need advice aren’t necessarily right, or they aren’t right for the reasons you should care about, or they don’t apply well to your situation, or they divert your attention from more critical issues, and so on.
Another shocking problem: even if you try to form an opinion before you ask friends and the Internet what they think, often you will later encounter an opinion that is similar to your own half-baked idea, but more developed and eloquent. You’ll then adopt this opinion without going through the mental exercise of arriving at it independently, and you won’t really understand why you think what you do. In some cases, you might think something different than you would have if you had taken the mental steps to reach your own well-formed conclusion. And adopting someone else’s opinion is likely to leave you less sure that the idea is really worth believing – you’re less attached to it because you’re aware it’s not originally yours.
In this way, instant access to others’ opinions often leaves us without strongly held opinions of our own. We’re more aware of what other people think than of what we think.
Shocking problem #3: If a majority of people feel more sure of society’s views than of their own, and society displays an aggregate of individual views, from whom is “everyone” getting their opinions? Buzzfeed? The Atlantic? Your friend’s uncle? It’s worth thinking about.
This isn’t to say every opinion you hold should be meticulously reasoned and independently developed. That would be prohibitively time consuming, and there’s certainly value in using outside opinions to help form your own. But your opinion should not be solely a function of the opinions of others. Seductively immediate Internet and text opinions should not replace the necessary synthesis of more complex, less available ideas. An English teacher would summarize this argument by telling you not to rely on tertiary sources.