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Good truth hunting

We, the millennials, will be remembered as participants in the Age of Information. Most of us hold in our pockets a device that can inform us about almost anything. All right, I thought, so what? Staying attuned to contemporary events requires us not only to have information but also to be able to distinguish the truth in a wide sea of opinions, facts and numbers. This is especially relevant for a world in which the truth does not always seem to be readily available. As I contemplated how people of my age group could insert themselves into an important global discussion of knowledge and our right to have it, I turned to one of my favorite writers.

Warren Ellis’ wonderful comic series Transmetropolitan is about a journalist whose desire for the truth embroils him in ugly conflicts with morally skewed politicians. Spider Jerusalem, the aforementioned journalist, seems to be one of the few people in a metropolis of millions who believe that its citizens should have access to the truth, even if they choose to ignore it.

The series, first published in 1997, depicted a world in which people downloaded themselves into literal hazes of data called “foglets” (a precursor of Apple’s iCloud?), sprawls of low-income families struggled to survive in forgotten projects and ghettos (Cleveland, Detroit, Camden?) and figures of authority lied — rather, didn’t completely reveal the truth — to the masses (James Clapper?).

President Obama, at a news conference in The Hague this week, announced plans that would terminate the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of American telephone data. These proposals would require the NSA to obtain a court order before procuring information from phone companies. Notably, the President said, “We have to win back the trust … of ordinary citizens.”

Regarding this point, I certainly don’t disagree. Unfortunately, I believe we live in a time in which national security programs have aided the mass collection of private webcam images. I also believe that many people trusted technological companies, which may have falsely ensured their customers that they knew nothing of bulk email and file collections, to be better than they were. The ire of Spider Jerusalem, a fictional character, is fueled by the vulnerability of real people, real anger and real distrust.

As I grappled with this, I wondered whether there was anything college students could do to somehow alleviate a very passionate situation. I once succumbed to a myth that says young people are useful simply for reassuring adults that the world is in good hands. We could make PowerPoint presentations about serious issues, but, of course, we wouldn’t begin to affect real change until our post-graduate lives. This is obviously false. The University happens to be a great example of a school whose students frequently address some of the world’s most pressing issues — moral, political, environmental and so on. While the University is an excellent forum for student creativity and problem-solving, I was still unsure how to account for our place in this tense, post-Snowden world. But I have a few notions of where we might start.

Perhaps the most critical step for students (most of whom are neither politicians nor journalists) is the perusal of multiple news sources. I am not just talking about organizations that have a good reputation for the least subjective stories. Gather the biases, and listen to as many voices as you can. We can hope that somewhere in the polyphony resounds a note of truth. I find it very meaningful to read comment sections and personal blogs, too. These are the voices of people not unlike you or I, who share similar concerns and who often contribute facts and opinions about particular articles that the author may not have considered. Reading academic journals, on the other hand — many of which are available through the University’s databases — offers more in-depth analyses than those usually found in news publications.

As students in a campus environment, it is true that we may facilitate emotionally cathartic conversations about contemporary events. However, in terms of approaching objective truth, I think our proximity to accomplished faculty members simplifies the process. We attend a school where, only a decade ago, former Princeton professor Robert Hutchings took a leave of absence to chair the National Intelligence Council. Now, if Hutchings still taught here, would I expect him to talk about each detail of his job? Well, no. My point is that we are among people who know a great deal about issues of national importance, and some of these people are players in the game.

You’ll forgive me for slightly corrupting the words of Ms. Susan Patton: Before you graduate, find the professors on campus who can speak meaningfully about the topics that matter to you (in this case, the ability to acquire the truth). Of course, once you graduate, you will meet people who know what they’re talking about — but they might not be as well-informed. The University’s technological and human resources allow us to define the Age of Information not based on the number of computers we have, but on our preparedness to find objective truths.

Aaron Robertson is a freshman from Detroit, Mich. He can be reached at aaroncr@princeton.edu.

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