Good grief. There’s been talk about how television would rot children’s minds. Comic books were the culprit before that. Believe it or not, critics bemoaned the invention of writing as something that would reduce young people’s capacity to remember on their own. Now of course, the Egregiously Vile Internet Legacy (EVIL™) represents the latest threat to our kids’ intellect. Never mind that children have just as much reason to be concerned about their parents’ internet habits.
Each new cultural shift brings out a new cadre of curmudgeons: those grumpy old folks who think that things were better in the old days and that we’re in some sort of intellectual death spiral. I think if any of them had been alive long enough they would long for the wonderful simple days when man learned to stand erect and gathered his own food.
I sincerely believe that the internet offers its own opportunities for intellectual enhancement. Chatting online and text messaging introduces a new shorthand, as complex and nuanced as any new language. Blogging and threaded discussions have given rise to whole new outlets for exposition and discourse. Visual media is highly advanced, encouraging spatial thinking and advanced artistic techniques. And the coolest part is that all of these new intellectual outlets are available to everyone who can access the internet, not just the elite few who could afford formal training. However, as with anything, the outlets can be abused. I bet there were some troublemakers in Aristotle’s gatherings at the Lyceum too.
Nick Carr wrote a long article earlier this month which gives some good examples of the Marshall McLuhan idea that media shapes not only the message, but the way we receive that message and any other subsequent messages. Over time we change the way we think. I believe it is not dumber, just different. Our capacity for multitasking may improve, even as our ability to absorb long and complicated texts decreases.
Note: I stole the title of this post from a book called The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlain. I haven’t read it but it has prompted reactions both supportive and scathing so I assume it covers issues similar to what I’ve talked about in this post.