Is the Internet Making Us Dumber?

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Tuesday, 26 May 2009

(12:54:23 CDT)

Is the Internet Making Us Dumber?

Is the Internet—that random collection of HTML, scripts, advertisements, links, and search engines—making us dumber? Technophobes have been saying that the answer is a resounding "Yes!" for some time, on top of cheapening our culture and stealing our souls. Even amongst the technophile class, there has been some disquiet. As far as I know, the first big treatise against the Internet written by someone who was immersed in growing technology was Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil. He said that e-mail and IM technology would destroy grammar, it would increase our belief that we could quickly overwrite mistakes, and that it would make us think information was more at hand. It has been some time since I have read this book, so my memory of it is not quite up to par, but when I first went to college it was one of the first books handed to me by a librarian who said I just had to read it. At the time, I sort of bristled at the message. It stuck with me, though.

More recently, I read the article "Internet is fostering a 'want it now' culture among students". To sum it up, Web 2.0 style technology is not only taking up more of a thought-space of students than ever before, but it is also contributing (at least is correlating) to a significant decrease in literacy and, perhaps more importantly, to a signficant decrease in the ability to critically evaluate the materials at hand. Not really covered in any depth at all is also the concept that students get frustrated if they do not immediately get the results they want, if they cannot immediately find what they are searching for.

While I agree that people are too quick to jump on Internet rumors and our school kids are getting absolutely horrible at the ability to do research, I am not fully convinced that this is some new trend that can be blamed on Web 2.0. First off, there is the Principle of Least Effort (PLE) which was the first thing I was told to read about in my MLIS courses. Namely, in experiment after experiment, people of all learning levels, professional levels, and "importance of research" levels tended to choose the most easily obtainable resources over the good resources. While laziness is assuredly a factor, there also seems to be some psychological principle at play, here. We consider information more readily found more valuable. Maybe we think that things that are closer at hand are better? Maybe it is that age old axiom that "hidden knowledge" is somehow dark knowledge? Or maybe it is based on some fairy-tale principle that the true things are popular things? None of which are based on any real world consideration.

The important thing to note is that PLE pre-exists Web 2.0. It pre-exists what might be called Web 1.1, that mid-90s, largely AOL-created, explosion of the average person to the Internet. While the key article was written on it in the 80s, that article cites studies that were, then, decades old. This means we have always had a "want it now" culture. The Internet has just fostered a false belief that it is more justified.

Some have come forth to defend the Internet, like the short op-ed piece by Ezra Klein—"Your brain on Google"—which cites the article "Your brain is an index". In "Index", Peter Suderman says that we are not becoming dumber, we are just being smart in different ways. He writes that we are learning not in a "book" style, meaning all information in a single, large info-packet; but that we are learning to learn in a matrix/index style. We now process information more as links and remote storage and the ability to dig up information. Klein goes on to say, in his take, that it's not quite like Suderman says, we are not learning where to find information. We are leaning where to look for where to find information. All this, though, runs into a potential trap. Saying that some can find information more readily using the Web, so knowing where the information is found means they are just as smart as someone who knows the information; makes sense until you start factoring in PLE and critical evaluation. This is the equivalent of saying that Tom knows Harry and Harry is the man to talk to about fishing. Knowing Tom and therefore being able to get him to ask Harry about red fishing lures and their bass catching effectiveness is not the same as knowing about the actual effectiveness. You know the information that Tom relates from Harry's opinion, albeit one based on experience, on the matter. The use of the information still involves critical evaluation and learning of possible other scenarios.

To go back to my original question, is the Internet making us dumber? No. I think what it is doing is making us think that we are smarter. Just like Socrates hinted all those years ago, knowing what you do not know is the first step of wisdom. If you think you know the truth, you stop searching. What's more, a high enough percentage of people will start "preaching" the new truth. In terms of the Internet, rumor and unfounded facts get picked up and made more popular and spread more, showing up earlier in search engine searches. Think of a site like BoingBoing, which I love. They are very opinionated. As people agree and disagree with them, it drives up their links and the results show up higher and higher. Search engines are good at showing what people look at. They are crap at showing the truth. That is not their job, but more and more seem to forget this.

Arguably our first defense against this creep towards accepting popularity or accessibility as truth is our teachers. As a librarian, though, I have seen so many questionable or outright wrong instructions. One of the most common things is students who are told "not to trust the Internet". This is true to extent, but for every dozen bad links on the 'Net, there are some really good ones. You might not want to trust "Mikes WebPage Of teh GovERNment!" but a Depart of Labor website might not be so bad. Rather than promote critical evaluation, teachers are trying to shortcut it to things like "peer reviewed articles are better!" What they fail to teach students is that in order for an article to be "peer reviewed" means you have to check subsequent articles and how they reference the past article. What do letters written into the journal say about the article? How to future articles quote it? Without including the "peers" in the peer reviewed journal, all you have is one group's take on something, albeit a likely well researched one. One makes PRJs important is that the field as a whole can respond to them. Not teaching this leads students to think that any paper that is published in a PRJ is "the truth". This is not true. Teachers also come down heavy on "do not use secondary resources" but when I try and get students to explain what that means, very few know. I am not sure teachers know what they mean when they say that phrase. Are they cautioning against using textbooks, are they talking about avoiding other people's summaries of said article (this seems to be the overall notion), or are they actually asking students to dig up interviews and other first-hand accounts only?

Of course, there is tons of hatred against Wikipedia. Look, Wikipedia has flaws but let us be honest. Your average webpage, your average article, your average newspaper clipping, is written by one or a couple of people and their opinion, their bias, is going to be omnipresent in everything that is written. At least Wikipedia tends to normalize opinions across a dozen or even hundreds or thousands of voices. Definitely take things on Wikipedia with a grain of salt, but it is impossible to find something more edited than a big entry on Wikipedia. Rather than tell students that Wiki is the devil, why not teach them about the strengths and weaknesses of it, how to use references and view the edit history.

Again, the Internet is not making us dumber. It is just making us think we have a bigger grasp of knowledge and that is not true. We tend to broadly accept or broadly toss aside entire blocks of knowledge, and we tend to take quickly accessible information prior to better edited or researched but less known information. What's more, the smarter people think they are, the better they seem to think they are at intuiting "true" knowledge from the morass that is the Internet. As a smart guy that has been burned a good number of times, listen up my fellow intelligentia: DOUBT YOURSELF. Find a few more links. Find a few more opinions. Consider yourself wrong, if you have the time to do so. Doubt yourself, and you will be surpised at how digging a little deeper will help you to find a lot more accurate things.

In conclusion, the only way we are going to get to a point where we can use the Internet properly is if we start pushing these skills early. Teachers have to drop broad, useless terms when teaching students how to research (in fact, we need to have at least one class in highschool about "Rearch Methods" and make it a real class combining logic, evaluation, cross-linking, and proper data manipulation and analysis) and start giving actual, direct concepts and discuss the fact that almost all methods have pros and cons. The "truth" is not something you can algorithm with phrases like "avoid webpages". Some webpages are good. Some are crap. Teach students how to get to those good pages.

Also, as a personal aside, librarians have to stop treating the Internet like it is a fad and we have to stop letting people think that librarians are practically useless. The world really does need "information professionals" more than it pretty much ever has. The fact that so many libraries are taking budget cuts because people think search engines make librarians useless is a sad thing, but part of that will be rectified when librarians start putting the technology to use, and getting out there and being vocal about what they can and cannot do. Let people know that we, as a people (not just the librarians), are pretty much the same dumb blocks we have always been and proper research, as always, still requires finesse, even if Google returns results without any.

Si Vales, Valeo


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