April 18, 2024

The Internet->Stupidity Connection

Nick Carr says that the Internet is making us a stupid society incapable of – or unwilling to – focusing on the internalization of large bodies of information.  He blames the web and its many instantaneous answers to questions we have.

“We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.”

There is a kernel of truth at the core of this argument, one that I can easily identify from my work life.  When Microsoft introduced it’s large, complex .NET programming framework, I, along with many other  software developers adopted it.  But most of us didn’t spend man-months learning its intricacies like previous generations of programmers.  Instead we dove in, learned only what we needed to know, and crawl the Internet looking for answers to specific questions on an as-needed basis.  As a result we understand less about the technology than we should, even as we use it to increase our productivity.

Joe Windish doesn’t see that as a problem:

The old paradigm privileged focus. Memorization was key. I want my machines to do that for me. The new paradigm means I can let my mind wander. It might privilege pattern recognition. How things relate to one another. Or the mix. Or something altogether different and yet to be discovered.

Out of paradigm shifts comes wreckage. And there well may be issues here that I’m not seeing.

There are.  Specifically, the problem of replacing real intellectual prowess with impromptu technological aids becomes demonstrable when the crutch is no longer there to lean upon.

That’s something worth consideration in a world whose rising demographic trend is one in which open inquiry and unrestricted use of technology is anathema.  Wither to then, when access to information is controlled by those who despise it?

Many Chinese understand this problem all too well.  Europeans, I expect, will learn the same lesson the hard way – within my lifetime.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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2 thoughts on “The Internet->Stupidity Connection

  1. Of course, Nicholas Carr didn’t explore that in his article, which was my disappointment. My view is that I expect the crutch you describe will always be there and will, in fact, become a part of us — in a way similar to that which Ray Kurzweil suggests in his writings. I am not, however, the same kind of technoutopian he is. I agree there are real and serious threats that we need to be made aware of. The whole point of my post was that Nicholas Carr’s piece was a missed opportunity to genuinely look at some of them.

  2. I’m not as sure. It seems as though we’re decades away from meaningful bio-tech integration, maybe more. So long as it remains external, too many pressures can be brought to bear against our use of technology to take it for granted.

    On the whole, the question of what my capabilities are when I’m disconnected is still highly relevant.

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