Over at Wired.com, David Wolman has posted an essay entitled The Critics Need a Reboot. The Internet Hasn’t Led Us Into a New Dark Age. The essay is a response to the numerous recent books and articles that paint “the internet and its digital spawn” as the cause of the growing shallowness and dumbing-down of society. I’ve been following this trend of blaming the internet as part of another interest of mine, Work Literacy, and that is how I came across this particular article.
What caught my eye, in terms of relevance for this blog, was Wolman’s take on the role the internet (and its digital spawn) plays. It’s not the cause of these problems, it is an enabler of these things for people, and a society, that is already pre-disposed to this way of thinking.
…in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), Mark Bauerlein delivers a grim assessment of the state of young minds, rattling off statistics about faltering education and using such figures to buttress his assertion that the Internet, videogames, and IMs all serve to numb and dumb.
To be sure, there is plenty of evidence that ignorance and irrationalism are rampant. Pernicious fallacies have found a purchase among educated people who ought to know better: Vaccines cause autism, Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks of 9/11, power lines give you cancer, cell phones kill honeybees, and global warming is a scam orchestrated by tree-hugging liberals.
Yes, it must be acknowledged that the Web provides remarkably easy access to such bogus ideas. On top of that, there’s the human tendency to seek out information that supports preexisting assumptions, a behavior psychologists have dubbed homophily. The Web magnifies this echo-chamber effect.
Continuing his theme that technology is not the culprit, Wolman goes on to say:
But the latest crop of curmudgeons fail to acknowledge that there is not much new in this parade of the preposterous. The US has a long and colorful history of being taken in by the erroneous and irrational: Salem witches, the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, phrenology, and eugenics are just a few choice examples. The truth is that Americans often approach information — online and off — with a particular mindset. “Antirational junk thought has gained social respectability in the United States during the past half century,” notes Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason. “It has proved resistant to the vast expansion of scientific knowledge that has taken place during the same period.” Jacoby argues that long-standing American values like rugged individualism and the need to question authority have metastasized into reflexive anti-intellectualism and disdain for “eggheads,” “elites,” and pretty much anyone who might be described as credentialed. This cancerous irrationalism isn’t pretty, but it isn’t technology’s fault, either.
If we do find ourselves in a new dark ages, it won’t be caused by the internet. It will be caused by people. (Of course, the internet will be there to document it all ;-)
David Wolman is also the author of the Wired piece, The Truth About Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know.