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Perspective on knowledge: Is the Internet making us stupid?

This article appears in the issue June 2016 [Volume 25, Issue 6]

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Is the Internet making us stupid? I’ve gone from being tired of this question to being more and more confused by it.

A recent poll says that about two-thirds of Americans think that the Net is indeed making us stupid. But I wonder what the percentage would be if the question were “Is the Internet making you stupid?”

We all can point to ways in which it is indeed making us stupider in some sense. I know that I check in with some sites too frequently, looking for distraction from work. Some of the sites are nothing to be ashamed of, such as Slate, Google News, Twitter, BoingBoing, some friends’ blogs, DailyKos. (Yeah, I’m a Democrat. Surprise!) Some are less dignified: Reddit, HuffingtonPost, BuzzFeed sometimes. And then there are the sites I don’t even want to mention in public because they reflect poorly on me. OK, fine: Yes, I’ve been to Gawker more than once.

Ready to be delved

We also all—or maybe just most of us—spend time bouncing around the Web as if it were a global pinball table. One link leads to another and then to another. Sometimes the topics are worth knowing about, and sometimes they’re just mental itches that spawn more itches every time we scratch. Often I can’t remember how I got there and sometimes I don’t even remember where I started and why. I suspect I’m not alone in that.

So, in those ways the Internet is making me stupider by wasting my time. Except that often those meandering excursions widen my world. So, maybe it’s not making me quite as stupid as it could.

But, when I look at what I do with the Internet, the idea that it’s overall making me stupider is ridiculous. Not only can I get answers to questions instantly, I can do actual research. Whom do the French credit with inventing the airplane and how do they view the Wright brothers? What was the mechanism that governed the speed at which a dial on an old phone returns to its initial state, and why was it necessary? Why did the Greeks think that history overall declines? Whatever you want to delve into, the Internet is ready to be delved.

Every level of explorer

Before the Internet, this was hard to do. With the Internet it’s so easy that we now complain about being distracted. But it’s by no means always pointless distraction. Getting easier answers encourages more questions. Those questions lead to new areas to explore where almost always you’ll find information written for every level of explorer. The threshold for discovery has been reduced to the movement of your clicking finger measured in millimeters. Your curiosity has been unleashed.

If you disagree, if you think the Internet is making you stupider, then stop using it. But of course you won’t. You with the Internet is much smarter than you without the Internet. Isn’t that true for just about all of us?

So, if it’s true that most of us act as if the Net is making us smarter, why do two-thirds of Americans think it’s making us dumber? The answer, I believe, comes from recognizing that people are really saying that the Internet is making them stupid. You know, them.

Them and us

Who is this them? At our worst, we define them by race, gender or other irrelevancies. But putting such prejudices aside, the them are people we feel can’t navigate the Internet without getting lost or fooled. For example, they are children who think it’s fine to copy and paste from the Net into their homework. So, yes, parents and teachers need not only to teach students to think critically but to enjoy doing so.

Still, the question that gets asked isn’t “Is the Net making students stupid?” The them is broader than that. I suspect that when we think of a stupid them, we’re imagining someone with whom we disagree deeply. The them denies science, distrusts intellectual inquiry and votes for people we consider to be crazy, stupid or both.

But the mystery still remains, because those people—the them—also believe that the Net is making them smarter. After all, that’s how they found all that important (but wrong) information about, say, climate change or vaccinations. So then just about everyone should be thinking that the Net makes them smarter. If we all think the Net’s making us smarter, why are we so ready to disparage human knowledge’s greatest gift to itself?

Might it be that our sense that the Net is making other people dumber masks the recognition that all belief is based on networks of believers, authorities and works? Even ours. The Net has made visible a weakness of all human knowledge: It lives within systems of coherence constantly buttressed by other mere mortals. Perhaps that exposure brings us to condemn the Net’s effect on everyone else but us.

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