Does the Internet Make Us Dumber? Or Smarter? Or Both?

Posted on June 21, 2010 by 2 Comments

Over on my Facebook page I’ve been playing host to a weekend-long debate, which has evolved into a discussion worthy of it’s own blog post.

The question: Are we dumbing down as a culture? And if so, what role does media play?

Cited: 3 dueling op-eds

  1. Does the Internet Make You Dumber? WSJ, Nicholas Carr quotes the Roman philosopher Seneca: “to be everywhere is to be nowhere,” arguing that the hyperlinked structure of the internet contributes to a persistent state of distraction which, research indicates, hampers deep thought and, along with it, retention of information and absorption of knowledge.
  2. Mind Over Mass Media, NYT, Stephen Pinker argues that new forms of media have always caused panics (the printing press, newspapers, television, paperbacks), but such panics fail reality check. The oft-bemoaned perception that we are dumbing down as a culture is not supported by evidence to the contrary, such as the modern output of scientific innovation.
  3. Does the Internet Make You Smarter? WSJ, Clay Shirky references historical disruptions in culture fueled by new media evolutions (the Protestant Reformation, fueled by print) to illustrate the pattern of initial break-down of cultural/intellectual norms followed by an explosion of new creative outputs which raised societies to a new level.

The debate sub-streams

  1. To what extent does media contribute to the dumbing down of a culture? Or does it? Or is it the symptom of a dumbed down culture? Evidence to support the “dumbing down” hypothesis is seen in the insipidness of so-called “Reality TV,” the political and cultural extremes cultivated by and reinforced by news agendas (FOX) and the 24-hour news cycle, and the persistent distraction we suffer from as a result of our hyperlinked, short-form internet and social media behaviors. Does media fuel this, or is it merely a mirror reflecting the culture as it is? Or is it a distorted mirror, reflecting culture at the edges?
  2. Why are there so few culturally and politically meaningful comedians compared to two to three decades ago? Who are the Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor of today? (John Stewart and Stephen Colbert of course…)  Is this evidence of a cultural dumbing down? Or is it evidence simply of the business-minded Hollywood machine which has optimized to produce pulp for the masses rather than the edges?
  3. And what about the role of education and critical thinking? One could argue that all three of the op-ed author’s arguments about the impact of the internet and social media on us as a culture are accurate — the internet, like all media, is simply an amplifier — widening the gap by which the dumb are becoming dumber, the smart, smarter. But isn’t it really an issue of critical thinking abilities and the willingness to apply them? Is this skill being taught more or less than a generation or two ago? (remember McCarthyism?) Does classical education or internet-enabled knowledge assimilation contribute more or less to one’s ability to absorb and [critically] process knowledge?

The meta: the medium is the message

Interestingly, the discussion is in many respects an example of “the medium is the message” at play:

  • Living room —> Web —> Facebook. The conversation originated in my living room as a wine-sotted debate between my husband and our neighbor, crossed over onto social media when I opened my laptop to hunt down the NYT op-ed as my contribution to the debate, then posted on Facebook.
  • Internet-facilitated connection of culturally and geographically dispersed nodes. Once on Facebook, the discussion then drew in an individual from my hometown (whom I hadn’t spoken to in 20-years, aside from him friending me on Facebook), my husband (sitting across the room from me debating with me on Facebook from his iPhone), a martial arts buddy from across the country and a couple work colleagues from opposite coasts.
  • Facebook’s alienation of “professional creators” via sketchy privacy and copyright policies. Meanwhile my neighbor exited the debate completely once he walked across the street and went home because, as a professional photographer, he wants nothing to do with Facebook and its questionable privacy and copyright issues.

So what do you think? Are we dumbing down as a culture? And does the internet and social media play a role?

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2 Comments

Jeremy Meyers on June 21, 2010

To address your points above

1) I do think that reality tv and such have built momentum toward a judgment and shame based view of ‘the other’ (hey sound familiar, Christian Right?). People tune in to watch human train wrecks (or rather, attention-seeking lonely people edited together to seem like human train wrecks) so that they can feel better about themselves, feel bad for the people involved and have a misdirected sense of smug superiority from ‘the unwashed masses’. That said, this is nothing new.

2) I think this may be a bit of confirmation bias happening. Just because Dane Cook is selling out MSG doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of smart political comedians out there. Lewis Black, for one. Also, there is exponentially more regularly accessible smart political commentary available online than has ever been.

3) Ah, a hot button for me. Our primary education system is a relic from pre WW2 days when what was needed was a large group of people with generally the same knowledge base but nothing exceptional so that they could go and work at the Ford factory for 50 years, get a plaque and a pen and retire in peace. It is woefully underserving those ‘outside of the mold’ folks and those with specific passions, be they business, creative, anything. We are not feeding kids passions, we are actively discouraging them from exploring their curiosity and we do the society a disservice by forcing teachers to teach to annual Regents exams that serve to demonstrate only that kids have a general knowledge of nothing particularly interesting. Listen to @chrislehmann‘s talk at #140conf for more about the future of education.

You also haven’t defined your terms. “Dumb” vs “Smart” are subjective to the point of being almost meaningless. I can call a redneck hick “dumb” but if he can take a car engine apart and put it back together, thats a set of skills i dont have.

I would say that what is actually going on is that the internet is lowering our filters to what we choose to share of ourselves and the content we’re interested in, both the ‘smart’ intellectual discourse (like this thread) as well as the ‘baser’ stuff (lolcats, porn), and by virtue of having a much wider data pool to pull from, it may APPEAR as thoguh we’re becoming less intellectual, but now that our ‘published works’ can include essays on the socioeconomic importance of genetically modified peanuts as well as a tweet about OMG LOOK WHAT HAPPENED ON GLEE, the perception may have shifted.

Also, there was a really interesting article in…i want to say the new yorker, about how data-based knowledge is ‘moving to the cloud’, so that we don’t NEED to know the dates of specific battles in the revolutionary war, because with two clicks on our phone we’re on wikipedia, and how this is changing our brains (not enough time has passed for any definitive research, but i found it fascinating)

Derek Whiteside on June 22, 2010

Also apropos to this trio of articles is Nicholas Carr’s piece for the Atlantic; in it he argues that the kind of sustained attention and meditative thought enabled by “deep reading” is not common among those who do most of their reading online. He describes denizens of the internet age as “pancake people,” spread thin and wide. He also, however, acknowledges that there has historically been much (misplaced?) hand-wringing about the advent of the written word (!) as well as moveable type.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/

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