“Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”
Although the internet did exist when I was born, it’s usage has changed quite a bit since its early days. What was once a text-only space filled by some of the proud few who actually owned a computer is now a graphics-based sprawl of sites catering to any and all demographics that exist. While blogs at one time were basically repositories of interesting hyperlinks to follow, now they take the form of journals, self-help guides, and wikis.
As our favorite guy, Marshall McLuhan, said, “All media are extensions of some human faculty.” But media don’t just extend us, they change us and how we view the world too. Author Nicholas Carr is acutely aware that media can change a person. Among his writings, his article Is Google Making Us Stupid? addresses the changes he feels in himself from immersion into the Internet.
Carr is not the only person to claim that using the Internet has made it more difficult to read long texts. I myself have experienced the same phenomenon. However, the loss of the quiet contemplative reading that Carr loves, although traditional to us now, really is still a big step ahead of the worldwide analphabetism of which we so recently rid ourselves. Reading books may seem to us to be a central part of American life, but it is really a modern addition to Western culture. Only well after Gutenberg’s 1450 C.E. invention of the moveable type printing press was widespread literacy able to come about; before then, the only people who could read were some of the incredibly wealthy, men of the cloth, and the few others who went to school for some reason. So, even though Carr brings up that Socrates, “Bemoaned the development of writing,” he didn’t mention that that writing would not be used by most of the world for another few hundreds of years after Socrates.
And why did Socrates dread the rise of written language? In Plato’s Phaedrus, he is reported as having said (Socrates couldn’t write), “If men learn [to read], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks… Men will be filled not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”
I suppose it is a little difficult to compare the memories of us compared to dead people (they can’t remember anything now!), but Greek orators like Demosthenes were used to delivering long speeches without notes and poets would have recited epic poems like The Illiad over the course of multiple days. So, maybe it is true that we don’t remember as well as we used to.
Harold Innis could have told us that too. Adjusted to a space-biased medium like writing, we have lost connection to our time-biases to the past. We’ve favored being able to transport our messages widely. On the other hand, while being able to jot notes down has caused us to practice our memorization less, we can now read notes from across time and space. Even if I might know less of the oral tradition of my tribe, with writing, I can know some of the tradition of my culture, some of the French culture, some Mexican, some Rwandan, etc…
It’s important for us to remember that the internet is in fact a big truck. We can use it to transport massive quantities of information across long distances and we can use it to store information for later. This is a rare case where I agree more with McLuhan’s methods than Innis’. Hot and Cool as McLuhan defines them do form a dichotomy, but Innis’ time-biased and space-biased do not. Innis’ categorization forms a continuum from the most time-biased medium (maybe carving a message into the side of a mountain or tree) to the most space biased medium (radio waves that can travel vast distances almost instantly, but then never return).
Note that oration is not the epitome of time-biased media.
The internet, like most media, falls in the middle. If we had to say to which side it lays closer, we’d probably choose space-biased. However, with websites like http://literature.org/ and https://www.wikipedia.org/, the internet catalogs data indefinitely and may be accessed by any generation. I’d call that a time bias.
Is The Internet Making Us Stupid?
So, is Carr on to something? Is the internet making us stupid? Or are we just giving in to our laziness? Long, scholarly articles are on the internet. Entire epic poems are on the internet. Entire textbooks are on the internet. Yet, we choose to follow after clickbait. That’s not the internet’s fault, that’s our fault. Every generation has a tendency to criticize the next. Society isn’t getting worse and worse, it’s becoming completely different.
The internet isn’t making us stupid, it is making it easier for us to choose to be stupid! Writing in the modern world offers the same choice. Should we take the time to write something meaningful that will stand the test of time, of shall we bitch and moan into our diaries? Why put the effort in to write a thoughtful essay when you know you can pass the class with much less? Technology is a tool and we can find ways to make it useful. If we choose to pass-over the opportunities presented to us and lay shame on the young ones who use them, then the cycle continues. History repeats itself.
TLDR; Did you actually read this? Or did you just skim through as you skipped to the end?
If you skipped to the end, you may have allowed the internet to condition you into being stupid. If you were able to resist, then you’ve helped me show that the this powerful, new technology is just what we make of it.