Since the day when a 300 baud modem connected to the world wide web instead of Gopher, the question has been posed whether the internet makes people stupider. And at Techdirt, Karl Bode asks it yet again.
Google is making us stupid. Smartphones have ruined the art of conversation. Video games make you violent. There’s simply no limitation to the number of people quick to assume that technology is to blame for long-standing human foibles despite generations of historical evidence to the contrary. There is, however, usually a very sharp limit to the science actually supporting these positions. At the forefront of this yeah I bet that’s probably true movement has long sat Susan Greenfield, whose expertise in the field of “justify-my-Luddite-beliefs-at-all-costs” has gained endless media attention.
Nice, Karl. Make fun of Baroness Susan Greenfield (hi, cousin Susan) for being a Luddite. Only kidding. The closest my branch of the Greenfield family ever came to peerage was cleaning their floors. But I digress.
Of course, Karl is right, that the internet doesn’t make anybody anything. It’s merely the tool by which we are handed the opportunity to make ourselves stupider. As with all tools, it can be used for good or evil, and the internet-gods have left the choice in the mouse in our hands.
But what the internet has accomplished is to make it hugely difficult to differentiate between sound information and, well, stupid, maybe even batshit crazy, information. Many people seeking knowledge take to the Googles to find information upon which they can rely as being factual, thoughtful and accurate.
And the Googles works in a curious fashion, preferring sources of information that gain significant interest under the crowdsourcing belief that the marketplace of ideas will invariably favor the most reliable information available.
This notion comports with “common sense,” which is why it doesn’t always work out very well. For example, one might look to find information with which to understand an aspect of the law, and the Googles will send the person to an article in the New York Times rather than, say, here. Because a journalist whose last beat was movies will certainly know all there is to know about law. What could possibly go wrong?
But let’s say the googler isn’t so naïve as to fall for a newspaper story, and instead seeks out scholars, because everyone knows that academics are very smart and possess an expertise that is worthy of credibility. So someone searching for the First Amendment issues arising from, say, revenge porn legislation turns to, say, a law professor who has published a post directly on point in a credible news source. Certainly, that couldn’t make one stupider, right?
The point is that the internet provides access to magnificent information and ideas, fulfilling to a large extent its promise of bringing the world into our computer. It also brings the insanely wrong, mindlessly stupid along with it. But more problematic is that it brings the slightly wrong, basically credible as well.
It’s fairly easy to tell the stuff that’s totally off-the-wall. It’s not so easy to distinguish the stuff that’s just slightly wrong enough to make us feel as if we know what we want to know, but we don’t. This is compounded by the slightly wrong being presented on large, credible soapboxes, or by people with perceived credibility.
If we add confirmation bias into the mix, it’s a wonder anyone on the internet can think at all.
From the other side, the internet provides the mechanism by which everyone can be heard, or at least try to be heard, no matter how much or little they have to offer. There is no IQ test for buying a keyboard, and the dumber people are, the stronger their certainty in the correctness of their views.
But it’s not just dumb people. Indeed, some of the smartest people around, people too intellectually developed to bother with the riff-raff, who circle their wagons so they only have to talk amongst themselves, and perpetuate the glaring gaps in their knowledge, not to mention their inherent radical myopia.
And all of this, the dopes, the intellectual elites, the insane, the self-proclaimed sane, the knowledgeable and the passionate, streams into our computers with equivalent speed. It might be too much to say it’s a level playing field, but voices that would have never been heard before the internet at least have a decent chance of getting traction today.
Is there a solution to the morass of dubious data coming at us from every corner of the internet, so that the well-intended seeker of knowledge can find sources with attained credibility rather than ascribed or attributed credibility? Beats me. In fact, there would likely be a holy war over which was which, since we’re all so locked into the belief that the information that confirms our previously held beliefs is the truth.
No, the internet does not make us stupider. It just allows us to be as stupid as we wanna be. How this helps, however, isn’t entirely clear. After all, the good Baroness has her following, giving her a huge soapbox from which to express her “justify-my-Luddite-beliefs-at-all-costs” opinions despite Karl’s ripping them to shreds. Or maybe Karl’s wrong. Who knows anymore?