The Internet: Stupid As You Wanna Be

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?

25 thoughts on “The Internet: Stupid As You Wanna Be

    1. Fubar

      Prepublication release of my forthcoming scholarly tome, “Effects of Economically Feasible High Speed Data Communication Networks on Population Distributions of Intelligence”. You can download it here in its entirety, for free:

      Innovation brings fears of mutation,
      From gestation through final cremation.
      “No clutch pedal?”, some blithered,
      “Left legs will be withered.”
      Damnation? No. Neither salvation!

      Each new medium brings a barrage
      of prognostication — Mirage
      that seems to be lucid
      ’til rubbed down to stupid.
      The medium is the massage!¹

      Notes:

      1. Stolen. Fair and square.

  1. James Young

    You give Google too much credit. Google uses “Personalized Search”, which feeds you results partially based on what you have clicked on in past search results. If you click on a lot of crazy, then you are going to get more crazy. Crazy confirmation bias.

  2. mb

    The internet doesn’t cause any of this, it just speeds up the process. An avowed socialist, confronted with a simple economic concept like comparative advantage, will always respond that the Tunisian olive merchant rebellion of 1782 somehow negates the entire concept. Just as they always have, since long before the internet. The simpler the issue, the more obscure and irrelevant the counterexamples they will offer. The problem I have with the internet is that most of it is not an open public forum, even though it looks like it is. Most of it is dependent on clicks for ad revenue, and free speech has lost in the marketplace of ideas. Anyone who isn’t sufficiently nice to the idiots (or just refuses to play their game) gets banned from the entire internet, like me.

      1. mb

        And I’m glad you’re here, but that’s not an option for me. Anyone who would read a blawg from a guy with a JD, middle of his class, from a third tier state funded diploma mill, who works at Dairy Queen, would be someone who would make himself stupider with it.

        1. SHG Post author

          Third tier? I didn’t realize you were a scholar. While there were no such things as tiers when I went to law school, I believe mine would have been tier 9 or 27. The good news is juries never cared.

  3. David M.

    I operate on an even lower level. I didn’t set out to educate myself on some issue, I stumbled across the blawgosphere because I read XKCD. A year ago, it linked to Lowering the Bar. I read that blog, thought it was funny, then randomly clicked on some links in the sidebar.

    What does it say about me that, when I changed my politics, I stopped looking for input from the NYT, went straight to the Economist and thought I was doing it right this time? There must be others, as lazy as I but not lucky enough to have chanced across something to smash their bipolar little world. If I hadn’t gotten a crash course in critical thinking (reluctantly – I started off thinking you were mean and sexist,) I’d probably still be convinced there’s a solution to everything, and that it’s obvious if you only believe hard enough.

    So while I’m glad I pinballed through the interwebz to here, I didn’t choose it, nor did I do anything to deserve it. If the internet’s a tool, I hope other people can use it. I didn’t.

  4. Mark

    At the risk of sounding ingratiating, I wouldn’t have access to your perspective on legal issues and news. Prior to the Internet, it would have been next to impossible to get an expert opinion on police shooting unarmed civilians. I’d have been at the mercy of no-nothing pundits and whatever info I could get from the lefty periodicals I read. The Internet amplifies and disseminates information. It can give stupid people more ammunition for their stupidity, but it also serves those who are less stupid. In his book Foxes and Hedgehogs, Nate Silver shows how we should approach thinking in the Internet Age.

  5. Marc R

    Accessing reputable sources one would normally have to go to a large library. The internet offers those sources for free or minimal costs. As to knowing which sources are reputable, it’s the same as pre-internet. You get the source material, original text, and then known experts with differing views; trial and error.

    I’m not sure no knowledge is better than some. If you think you know something and are wrong then with an open mind it’s easier to learn; if you don’t know what you don’t know then it’s harder to commence a path. It’s when you don’t know and you try convincing others that the real problem starts.

  6. Patrick Maupin

    Yes, you’re right, there’s a lot of dross. OTOH…

    If the internet weren’t around, would you have published a book that I would have stumbled across?

    If you had published such a book and I had stumbled across it, would it be as informative as the sum of your internet columns?

    And even if the answer to those questions might have been yes, that almost certainly wouldn’t have been true in all of the thousands of other cases where I have learned valuable stuff from compleat strangers online.

    Sans internet I might have gone out in public and physically met reasonable facsimiles of some of those people, but certainly not all of them.

    Speaking of virtually meeting people, how did that barbecue travel?

    1. SHG Post author

      It traveled perfectly. Thanks again.

      I don’t know that I would have written a book, or if I had, it would have been anywhere near what SJ has become. And like you, I find the good and bad the internet has to offer. It’s been a huge learning experience for me as well.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        You’re welcome. And (almost) needless to say, that was a big “thank you” for all the work you’re doing here.

        And I realize, on re-reading your post and my comment, that I didn’t and don’t have any new exciting thoughts on this issue. I have a hard time even being calm enough to think straight about this issue (think NRA guy clutching his gun) because it plays directly into the bad framing of extremely serious on-going debates.

        As you point out: “But more problematic is that it brings the slightly wrong, basically credible as well.” A good case in point is the Megan McArdle article you linked to a couple of days ago, which said “It’s easy to say everyone has a right not to be alienated.”

        No, it’s not. Or at least it’s not easy to listen to (or read, rather). She doesn’t sound like a censorious asshat, so why is she pandering to them just like your “cousin”?

        You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that the same human tendencies that give us worse-and-worse laws are working full-bore to “tame” the internet. First, they came for the child pornographers…

        1. SHG Post author

          One of the primary “problems” people have with me is that I’m not a reliable ally, in that I won’t applaud anything and everything that basically supports propositions with which I agree. If they’re unsound, false, deceptive or compromised, then I am just as inclined to call them out as if they were coming from those who facially disagree with me.

          Most view the world in black and white, teams, tribes, whatever you prefer to call it. If you’re with me, we’re on the same side. If not, you’re the enemy. I have this terrible bone in my head that refuses to allow me to compromise my integrity just to back my team, right or wrong. And people really hate this about me.

  7. Timothy Knox

    First, obligatory fan boy comment: I love SJ, even though IANAL. 😉

    However, I have to take slight factual exception to “Since the day when a 300 baud modem connected to the world wide web instead of Gopher.” I may not be a lawyer, but I have been working as a software developer for nearly as long as you have been a lawyer, and have been involved in computers and been online since 1980. Gopher (the protocol) was not created until 1991. The first web server was actually live in 1990, though darned few people knew of it. However, by 1990, essentially nobody was using 300 baud modems. The first 9600 baud modem was introduced in 1984, and was pretty widespread by 1990.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s very hard to get snarky with tech when someone’s going to research your baud rate. Okay, so the 300 baud modem was a bit hyperbolic. Sue me.

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