Swimming in the Shallows

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Ned Resnikoff

I am a freelance writer, researcher for Media Matters for America, and occasional inactive to Salon. Everything written here is my opinion alone, and not representative of the views of my employer.

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  1. Avatar Transplanted Lawyer
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    says:

    Politically, the internet is a powerful reinforcer of what used to be called “sound bites” and now are “talking points” — short, nearly content-free statements with more emotional than intellectual impact. Political blogs are typically echo chambers rather than arenas of competing ideas, those engaging in what passes for discussion of issues of the day refuse to concede even the tiniest point and view savage fiskings on collateral issues or mispunctuations as Waterloo-like victories, and political news sites pump out about 100 times as much gossip than policy.

    Culturally, the internet atomizes our broader culture — we find more people like ourselves and with common interests to ourselves, at the expense of less interaction with other people who might be different and thereby challenge us into expanding and broadening our view of the world rather than specializing and focusing. Having 10,000 “friends” on Facebook — people you don’t actually know or ever interact with out in meatworld or, for that matter, who you don’t actually know are even real people — is not the same thing as a rich and active social life.

    Cognitively, it’s hard to imagine how ready access to resources like Wikipedia and the use of 140-character bursts as primary modes of communication will not alter (I would say degrade) one’s ability to retain and assimilate large amounts of information and process that information into new thoughts. Powerpoint (particularly badly-executed Powerpoints) as a tool of formal education is a significant contributor to this phenomenon as well.

    This isn’t peculiarly the technology’s fault — you can find deep thoughts, interact with people different than yourself, and challenge your intellect on the Net too. But that’s not how people have actually used the new technology; they have raced to create and then embrace what is easy, familiar and comfortable to them in the new medium.

    Ned may point out that this is merely “new” and “different” but gloss over the value judgment of whether it is good or bad. I’ll dive in where angels fear to tread, though: the internet has become a force which diminishes our collective ability to think deeply and flexibly.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Transplanted Lawyer
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      says:

      @Transplanted Lawyer, TL ol buddy, If my hazy memory of history is correct I do believe similar assertions were leveled at every evolution of information media from Gutenberg on.Report

      • Avatar Transplanted Lawyer in reply to North
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        says:

        @North, but weren’t Gutenberg’s critics right? The wide distribution of moveable type did decimate a tradition of oral and musical transmission of knowledge and folklore; it did result in profound cultural shifts, of internationalization, secularization, democratization, and other things which we today consider to have been net benefits to society. At the time, they were considered dangerous and subversive.

        @SamM, agreed that the good old days weren’t really so good. Lots of superficiality back then too. But things are different now. No one would listen to the Lincoln-Douglas debates today; they were long and intellectually dense and filled with respectful disagreement but people thought of them as the best entertainment out there and flocked for miles around to hear them. The Federalist Papers, if circulated today would get tagged with three “I like this” thumbs-ups and about fifty “TLDR” comments.

        I don’t deny that the massively-disseminated electronic media possesses the power to illuminate, educate, and accelerate our society as a whole. But I don’t see evidence that we’re there yet and I see some evidence that we are backsliding. Now that Netflix and other streaming videos account for 20% of global internet bandwidth, that means that only 79% is being used for pornography. On a more serious note, I seem to recall a lot of discussion here about a phenomenon known as “epistemic closure” and which is not confined to either the right or the left. What we have today, to channel Chris Hedges, is only the illusion of wider-spread cultural, intellectual, and political literacy.Report

    • Avatar Sam M in reply to Transplanted Lawyer
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      says:

      @Transplanted Lawyer,

      I am skeptical of that final claim. Sure, maybe 90 percent of people who read blogs aren’t as engaged as the well-read people of yore. But we have a MUCH larger cohort of people who are engaged on at least some level. The average pipefitter and housewife in 1950 had no access at all to the New York Times or the inner machinations of the national Academy of Sciences. At least SOME people avail themselves of such things today.

      Also, I suspect that the actual NUMBER of people who sat around reading Proust in the good old days was vanishingly small. See, a whole bunch of people couldn’t read at all.

      I woudn’t be surprised to learn that the number of people deeply engaged in intellectual reading has actually gone up in recent decades. The number of PhDs awarded would seem to be some proof in that regard. So what we have is a stable or growing number of intellectuals and a wide swath of people who have more access to serious stuff than ever, even if they don’t always engage in it.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    The other day, we were going out to dinner with a couple of other couples. The first couple showed up and we were waiting for the other couple and worried because we had heard that his dad was in the hospital. We agreed that someone should call and get status… I ran inside to get the kitchen cordless phone and brought it outside and handed it to them and they looked at me like I grew a second head.

    “What the hell am I going to do with this?”, they asked.

    They had left their cells at home, you see… and didn’t know the number of their best friends. And we didn’t know it either.

    When I was a kid, I had the phone numbers of dozens of folks memorized. Not only the numbers of friends, but acquaintances, siblings’ second phones, and so on.

    Now? We can’t even call our best friends because, well, we left it at home because we wanted to go out to dinner without interruption.

    While this might be a good jumping ground for an essay about how people don’t train their brains anymore, it seems about as timely as an essay explaining how ignorant people are because they don’t even know how to whip a horse.

    Though I will say that it’s a pity that fewer and fewer people seem to be able to play a guitar worth a damn. It’s all synthesizers and pitch control.Report

  3. Avatar Rufus
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    says:

    If it was discovered out that excessive internet-usage caused one’s legs to atrophy and fall off, there would be essays within 24 hours with the lines, “I’m skeptical about the claims made by some paranoid traditionalists that having legs is necessarily a good thing in life. Yes life will be different in the legless future, but is that to say we won’t be better, smarter, and more self-actualized? The pro-leg hysteria sounds to me like alarmism. And weren’t the old-timers once worried about the kids listening to Elvis?”Report

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