Thursday, September 8, 2011

I Blame Al Gore

This occurred to me whilst arguing about - of all things - post office and library closings over at MilPub.

And that is; does the Internet actually make you LESS informed? Has the Internet helped make Americans dumber?

There seems to be a swathe of opinion out there that says yes. One of the commentors over at the 'Pub seems to think that closing libraries is an inevitable side-effect of electronic commerce and knowledge. My snide observation is that it does indeed seem to be an artifact of the "dumbing" of the U.S. public.

I got to wondering; I've been involved in learning and teaching (in some aspect) nearly all my adult life. What have I observed that might help in figuring out whether all this Internet-shaming is factual or not. And I came to several conclusions, some germane, some less so.

Among the less germane but IMO affecting the argument is the effect of the electronic media in general.

As little as three or four generations ago you had to have some intellectual heft to get your ideas in front of the public.

Not that you had to be intelligent, or clever, or even particularly sane. All sorts of fucking idiots got published - Ayn Rand, forchrissakes! - and still do. But the ordinary garden-variety gomer had a hard time getting his or her empty head in front of others' to spout off moronic opinions. The media just wasn't there.

But with the proliferation of electronic outlets anyone; Glenn Beck, Osama bin Laden, me, can get all up in your grille with our whackadoodle ideas. The cumulative effect is to raise the apparent Whacko Factor.

Remember that intelligence, like pretty much all other human traits, is distributed on a bell curve. So by definition half of all humans are below the intellectual mean. And nearly all of them either have blogs or seem to work at Fox News. But, again, the increase in outlets for this tomfoolery provided by the electronical internet, 24-hour-cable-news, bizarre cable's impressive, and not really in a good way.

So I think that part of this "issue" is an artifact of the fact that there are just more ways for fucking idiots to be heard, not that Americans are necessarily more fucking idiotic.


I do think that in at least one aspect the Internet does contribute to debasing what intellectual content our public debate contains.

It allows you (me, anyone, everyone) to gain an nearly instant but extraordinarily shallow and facile learning about damn near anything. And I've noticed that my students - the electronic generation - are particularly bad about this.

Part of me wonders if this has to do with growing up with visual entertainment as a constant sort of intellectual elevator music in their lives. Movies and television don't encourage reflection. It requires a great deal of effort to stop a video because you want to ponder a certain point, issue, or question. From childhood we vidiots learn to suspend our disbelief to make video "work". We know that that actor isn't Paul Revere...but we go along with the gag to make the story work.

I wonder how far a stretch it is from there to hearing Rick Perry say "Fifty percent of Americans pay no taxes at all" and going along with THAT gag..?

But whatever the reason, I've noticed that an overwhelming majority of my high school and community college students over the past decade are bad; really, genuinely, extraordinarily bad at researching information.

If it isn't on Google or Wikipedia, they can't find it.

And I wonder; maybe this has to do with ONLY having used Google or Wikipedia...

As antediluvian as they are today, when I and those of my generation had to look something up all we had were dead-tree media (and microfilm...)

So we had to learn to use card catelogs. Dictionaries. Encyclopedias. Being a geologist I also had to learn to use the Science Citation Index, and the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, to research topics discussed in journals in my field.

All this paper-shuffling tended to make me, and my contemporaries, slower but fairly thorough (some, obviously, more than others...). And I often find that even when researching on-line I tend to do what I used to do; using one article to chase down several others from the citations, checking multiple sources to see if they confirm or contradict each other. And when I don't - for example, when I accepted a single source for the so-called "Irene Incident" in the Philippines in 1898 - I find that I make the same mistakes my students made; accepting unsubstantiated claims as facts, including interpretation in with data, and passing along outright falsehoods.


Has the Internet made Americans dumber?

I doubt it. For one thing, we were never all THAT smart to begin with. We, the People, have throughout our history tended to be credulous, emotional, badly-informed, and prey to all sorts of ridiculous nonsense.

What I think the Internet DOES do, though, is let us believe that we're smarter than we really are. It lends us a superficial knowledge that allows us to make all sorts of boneheaded choices thinking we know all the answers.

When we haven't even the slightest idea what the right questions should be.

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