Over the last several years, many people have engaged in discussion and debate about whether “the Internet makes us stupid.” What is this debate really about?
The first volley in the debate may have encapsulated the entirety of its substance. Doris Lessing, in accepting the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, asked:
How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this Internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free . . .
As the vanguard and finest defender of the cutting edge, TechCrunch boiled down Lessing’s careful rumination into “the Internet makes us dumb,” and crafted the exquisitely reasoned rejoinder: “Meh.“
The following year, Nicholas Carr kicked the debate into high gear by asking, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr noticed that after years of using the Internet as his main source of information, he’d become less able to apply sustained concentration to reading lengthy articles and books. He found anecdotes and early research that suggested that the constant browsing and skimming of information so typical of Internet reading exercised the brain in a different (arguably more shallow) way than the “deep” reading of books.
Carr himself noted people often feared that new technologies would limit human progress, without being able to imagine the ways those technologies would expand our knowledge and further progress: Socrates complained that writing allowed people to cease exercising their memories; the Gutenberg press was once decried as a tool of intellectual laziness.
Nevertheless, now two years later, Carr has more firmly concluded that the Internet has rewired our brains to crave new and trivial information, at the expense of deep analysis and critical thinking. From Carr’s original article through the recent publication of his book The Shallows, the question has become a matter of popular, academic and public concern. TechCrunch continued its proud tradition in this debate, dismissing Carr’s question as merely his “axe to grind.”
This is the kind of debate that can go on for a very long time, because the titular question is ironically stupid, though in a clever, link-baiting, book-selling way. Knowing what “stupid” is requires defining “intelligence,” which is a concept so malleable that anyone who isn’t stupid (and many who are) can argue without end that the other side is being stupid (or at least, isn’t being smart about what stupid is). Carr is not actually stupid, and I think his question isn’t designed to be answered.
However, there is one way that the Internet has broken a chain that began thousands of years ago: for the first time since the invention of writing, good writing is no longer crucial to the transmission of knowledge.
When information is available everywhere from anyone at little cost, the power of good writing is diminished as a vehicle for knowledge. Think of it this way: Was Plato the smartest of Socrates’ students, or was he merely the best writer? If all of the philosophers of Ancient Greece had blogs and Twitter, would we even know who Plato was? Would we hold any single one of them in such high regard? I think not. And yet, I think we would still have the full breadth and depth of Greek philosophy in our human knowledge base.
The constraints of physical media, from stone tablets to wood pulp, meant that only the best writing could survive the culling of editors, libraries, wars and time. So only good writers could pass their knowledge through the generations. Now that anyone can publish and everything is stored forever and can be found easily, anyone can transmit knowledge so long as it is relevant, and regardless of whether it is the best-written statement of the concept. If that were the case in Socrates’ time, we might have heard about the Cave from any one of his students – or maybe a dozen of them would have tweeted about it simultaneously. So we would know the allegory of the cave without knowing or caring who the author was.
This thought must torture good writers everywhere, including Nick Carr, so maybe that’s what his question is really about. The Internet isn’t making us stupid, and to be precise, it isn’t really making us bad writers. But it does make good writing matter less. Oh sure, you can argue that there’s an art to a good blog post or tweet or status update. But this isn’t like defining “stupid” – there really is a meaningful standard of good writing that people of taste and discernment agree upon, and people who argue otherwise are stupid, for lack of a better word.
The highest challenge in writing – as an act and art separate from the communication of information – is a lengthy work that commands sustained interest and concentration from a reader who enters the writer’s world, rather than the other way around. The Internet is a reader’s world, and that probably does make readers smarter. But it makes good writing for writing’s sake matter less, so people who otherwise would have had to be good writers to communicate their ideas can now just get their ideas out in 140 characters. Is that a bad thing?
I’ve been in this cave my whole life, but now I’m free. OMG, everything I thought was real was only shadows on the wall!! via @Socrates