Are we stupid or what?

14 October 2011 | Non-fiction, Tales of a journalist

Are we dumbed down by the Internet? Jyrki Lehtola takes a look at who might be to blame

Because I am not a historian and Googling this topic would take more than two clicks, I do not know whether Gutenberg was accused of ruining the future of young people and making adults even stupider.

There would have been reason to. The invention of the printing press took us away from what is truly important. The world was better before Gutenberg.

People knew themselves and each other; they were connected to nature and what really matters. After Gutenberg invented the printing press, those poor people were forced to read books, creating an ever-worsening state of helplessness.

New inventions are always bad for everything we could be.

Television made us stupid. It brought us TV dinners and put the family on the couch watching advertisements, even though everyone could have been in their own rooms reading Hegel.

Magazines made us stupid. They had short stories, gossip, and pictures about people other than Hegel.

Now we have this Internet thing. It made us incredibly, unbelievably stupid, although, on the other hand, not so much.

The power of the Internet to make people stupid has been discussed as long as we have had the Internet to talk about the power of it making people stupid.

Because the Internet is something new, the potential and effects of which we are just becoming acquainted with, it follows that it makes us stupider. Google’s automatic answer service prevents us from using our memories. Wikipedia removes from the pool of answers the one that the world is a complex place in which there can be many contradictory answers to the same question. The endless news stream takes away our ability to concentrate. Each of these and many more considerations have had articles and books published about them.

Then there is the other, somewhat amusing perspective that has clung to the Zeitgeist, according to which the Internet is the salvation that will teach our youth and children how to get along in the modern world. This view emphasises willingness to change, coping with speed, multitasking, and that reading books is just a hindrance in a world of flashing stimuli.

We have spent the whole beginning of the millennium discussing this. People who write books have argued for the dumbing-down affect of the Internet; people who make their living from the Internet argue about what a good place the Internet is for our coping skills.

One of the most recent additions to the conversation is Nick Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. According to Carr, the Internet is changing how our brains work. On the Internet you don’t concentrate deeply on one thing, instead jumping from link to link in such a way that our brains don’t stop long enough on one thing.

Carr’s book has naturally aroused a discussion in which the opposition has argued that, well, here we go again with another elitist author tut-tutting current developments without offering any other solutions that tut-tutting current developments.

Now that this discussion has been going on for so long, would it be possible reshape it, if only for a moment?

Are we making the Internet stupid?

The Internet is a global place that crosses all boundaries, where we can get the latest information, which we can delve into ourselves or read about how other people have delved into, and in which we can be connected with people and perspectives we may never have been able to encounter otherwise.

That doesn’t sound all that terrible: a place where we can become acquainted with ten different opinions on the financial crisis, connect with our friends, check tomorrow’s weather, and purchase Terrence Malick’s latest film.

It would be nice in a place like that, but then we show up, we humans. Or at least the confusion of the Internet’s commercial actors related to us humans – related to what we are like and what to offer us so we’ll stay on the Internet in a way that can be made commercially viable.

And so they tried to invent different ways we could be present on the Internet: open discussion boards, a continuous demand to take a stand and let our voices be heard, and the recognition of how confused we are in the face of life.

And that is why I find instructions, queries, and polls on the Internet that apply to me so well. How can I keep my erotic life interesting? (I either have to remember that a) the other party is also a person, not simply the object of my erotic desires and b) it’s always fun to try new things) When is the right time to buy a child a mobile phone? (Depends on the child and your situation in life.) What to do when a child masturbates? (Talk with the child without embarrassing him.) Why am I not losing weight? (I eat unhealthy foods and don’t exercise enough.)

We have the Internet, a source of limitless potential, and how do we use it?

We turn it into a book – a book for rather simple children that tells us things we already know. We turn the Internet into a place whose default assumption is that we’re stupid, into a place that always has the same old questions and answers.

The Internet didn’t make us stupid. It didn’t have time, because we had already made it stupid first.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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