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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