Thursday, September 08, 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.


Ael said...

I get it, the internet is an intellectual amplifier. It makes the peaks taller (yay!) but the valleys deeper (boo!)

FDChief said...

Ummm...say, rather, that it's more like an intellectual paint thinner. It covers a lot more area, but the results are really patchy and in many cases unsatisfactory.

Or to put it less metaphorically, most of those people who get good use out of the 'Net would be perfectly capable of doing withOUT the 'Net. Most of those whose use of the 'Net allows them to float out into the deep intellectual waters are doing so without oars, shark repellent, or any clue how to navigate.

But the dumb fuckers can vote.

And they do.

Lisa said...

"we were never all THAT smart to begin with" --

Spot-on. With you also on the need to pose the right questions.

It seems along with the plethora of media devices comes a tendency to exaggerate one's stance. Nuance goes out the door when some bloviator states something with passion 12 inches from our face. It is like an umbilical feed.

And we all know that once accepted as gospel, untruths are very hard to dispel. I feel many go down a slippery slope rather readily what with easy linkage to the first bad allegation.

Before, the Weekly World News looked like a tabloid. Today, both good and bad are both dispersed over the same wavelength; discretion is not our forte. The admixture of celebrity with news has confounded the matter, IMHO.

FDChief said...

Well, Lisa, I think part of the problem is that we assume that our times are unique and universal.

For most of our history - hell, for most of WORLD history - people were badly informed, emotional, stupid, easily swayed, and wont to confuse the personal with the political.

For most of the latter half of the 20th Century we had a "neutral" press that did its job fairly well...and the cultural expectation that we would be relatively civilized about iur politics.

But all the old demons were there, and the combined stress of Vietnam and Civil Rights were enough to bring them up again. The GOP realized that you could win elections by appealing to the CHUDs, did, then came Fox...and now we all tend to find not just our opinions but our "news" from partisan sources.

FDChief said...

The part of this I just find really disturbing is the death of the older paper-based research skills. They were never widely distributed or all that common, but at least in some places (like academe) were considered the standard.

That standard is dead and has been for some time, and has been replaced with "I found it on Wikipedia"...

Not a worthwhile trade, IMO

Lisa said...

Ah, the CHUDs ... alas. Yes, our monumental egos conflate personal and political, and off we go. We are callow, too emotional and reactive, and have only these fairly brute minds to cope with ever-speeded info feeds.

MLK was right: We have guided missiles and misguided men.

Aside from the weak North Star that guides most, to a large degree we HAVE lost the rigor involved with locating info from disparate sources. Most do rely on the click of a button, which means we are enslaved to the digerati -- those who post the material we source.

From my teaching, I saw an impulse to cheat and fudge, and prior to internet, who could follow up on every fact or contention? So the easy access to material online is a mixed blessing.

Most of the journals and much research is posted online, but one must be discriminating in one's viewing. As well, many of the professional journals are privileged for subscription members only.

But the flashy and easily-accessible material is so much more attractive ...

Ael said...

Well, when I was growing up, there was a lot of ho-hah about allowing them new fangled calculators in school. There was lamenting about the loss of long-division skills in the population.

Well, 30 years later, I have not done long division, except when helping my children in school.

This just in, I can't flintknap either.

FDChief said...

The thing is, Ael, that there are perfectly effective ways to research topics on the 'Net.

But they are either not being effectively taught, or the students aren't bothering to learn.

The thing with the dead-tree skills is that you HAD to learn them, or get smoked by people who had. The ease of Internet "research" is deceptive until you begin to spend some time really digging around your search engine and understand how easy it is to be steered, or to miss critical information because your search category is flawed.

It's like the entire shell intelligence that a PC creates. It's so superficially sophisticated that when you fall through the floor you're shocked by how that magic box can be so dumb...

Ael said...

Yes, there are effective ways to research on the net. Yes, there are people who could benefit from learning them. Yes, this means a lower signal to noise ratio than I would desire.

People will learn and adapt to cultural expectations. A well researched posting "smokes" a poorly done one just like it did in the dead-tree era. It will just take time for people and cultures to take up the slack.

Finally, why the pot-shots at wikipedia? The dead-tree era had *nothing* comparable (even the Britannica pales in comparison). Yes, there are deep flaws with it, but everything has flaws. The best screwdriver in the world will *still* make a lousy chisel.

In any case, paper libraries are dead (just some of them don't know it yet).

rangeragainstwar said...

Asking the right questions is the flip side of making proper and realistic assumptions concerning the topic being researched/discussed.