The internet doesn’t make people stupid…

Over at, David Wolman has posted an essay entitled The Critics Need a Reboot. The Internet Hasn’t Led Us Into a New Dark Age. The essay is a response to the numerous recent books and articles that paint “the internet and its digital spawn” as the cause of the growing shallowness and dumbing-down of society. I’ve been following this trend of blaming the internet as part of another interest of mine, Work Literacy, and that is how I came across this particular article.

What caught my eye, in terms of relevance for this blog, was Wolman’s take on the role the internet (and its digital spawn) plays. It’s not the cause of these problems, it is an enabler of these things for people, and a society, that is already pre-disposed to this way of thinking.

…in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), Mark Bauerlein delivers a grim assessment of the state of young minds, rattling off statistics about faltering education and using such figures to buttress his assertion that the Internet, videogames, and IMs all serve to numb and dumb.

To be sure, there is plenty of evidence that ignorance and irrationalism are rampant. Pernicious fallacies have found a purchase among educated people who ought to know better: Vaccines cause autism, Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks of 9/11, power lines give you cancer, cell phones kill honeybees, and global warming is a scam orchestrated by tree-hugging liberals.

Yes, it must be acknowledged that the Web provides remarkably easy access to such bogus ideas. On top of that, there’s the human tendency to seek out information that supports preexisting assumptions, a behavior psychologists have dubbed homophily. The Web magnifies this echo-chamber effect.

Continuing his theme that technology is not the culprit, Wolman goes on to say:

But the latest crop of curmudgeons fail to acknowledge that there is not much new in this parade of the preposterous. The US has a long and colorful history of being taken in by the erroneous and irrational: Salem witches, the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, phrenology, and eugenics are just a few choice examples. The truth is that Americans often approach information — online and off — with a particular mindset. “Antirational junk thought has gained social respectability in the United States during the past half century,” notes Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason. “It has proved resistant to the vast expansion of scientific knowledge that has taken place during the same period.” Jacoby argues that long-standing American values like rugged individualism and the need to question authority have metastasized into reflexive anti-intellectualism and disdain for “eggheads,” “elites,” and pretty much anyone who might be described as credentialed. This cancerous irrationalism isn’t pretty, but it isn’t technology’s fault, either.

If we do find ourselves in a new dark ages, it won’t be caused by the internet. It will be caused by people. (Of course, the internet will be there to document it all 😉

David Wolman is also the author of the Wired piece, The Truth About Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know.

19 thoughts on “The internet doesn’t make people stupid…

  1. Joe,

    I’m not sure I’d take it that far…. (You didn’t happen to see him when you were out West, by chance?)


  2. Well it was Lewis Mumford who stated that people who are looking for a new dark age are unaware that we are actually in it already

    “The new Dark age is here we just don’t know it”

    Mother Earth News July/August 1974


  3. I know a lot of people around my age (a few years younger to a few years older, all neurologies) who spend what could be considered obscene amounts of time on the internet.

    We’re all fluent in chat speak. Yet, I’m telling you, these friends of mine are plenty intelligent. Just because they can type like they’re uneducated doesn’t mean they are. Trust those of us under 30, unless we have proven ourselves untrustworthy.


  4. If there’s one single reason that people are becoming “stupid,” look to the 19th C. school system that our kids are locked in for twelve years or more. In reality, there’s no one single cause of stupidity (acknowledging here that rampant ignorance isn’t stupidity), but combine a crumbling and irrelevant education system with television, and you’ve got a lot of it sewed up right there. If anything, the internet is in many ways a corrective, though an imperfect one.


  5. Of course it could be, judging from what I have seen on usenet and various fora, that the internet is judge showing up how uneducated and wilfully ignorant the current generation are, never before have we been so exposed to the democratisation of the “mob”” culture, but I daresay there were similar worries in Victorian times, in fact I know there were.


  6. Kassiane,

    Your suggestion is my basic philosophy towards people, regardless of their age: trust them until they prove themselves untrustworthy.

    I’m one of those guys caught in the middle of the technology debate. Unlike many of my contemporaries I see the value of all the new tools and technologies; unlike those younger than me, I’m not exactly sure how to use all fo them (but I’m trying).

    I have no doubt that, in the right hands, these tools will help in the creation of great things. Of course, there are those who will use/abuse/misuse the technology, and fritter away the opportunities that are shown them.

    But that’s true of anything, not just the internet.


  7. The internet is still in the hands of the elite and caters to the elite.

    The telephone, radio and television were never kept from so much of the largest part of the population that prevented them from the largest influence on their lives (political, social, and otherwise). At least not for very long and not on such a grand scale.

    The non mainstream may be guided by what the elite are discussing but they don’t feel connected to it or part of it. As soon as more of that population of people find out how their creativity is being suppressed by what is mandated by the elite by what is told to them that they need and don’t have, then everyone will see that the majority of poeple under 30 aren’t visiting chat rooms and talking on cell phones.

    In addition to that happening the result may be that more will start having opportunities to access those resources and more responsible uses of them may occur by people who don’t take their resources so much for granted..

    Claiming that there is a under 30 “crowd” is like describing a group that is “anyone who’s a someone” or a politician who caters to what they call the middle class when it’s actually the middle class of voters they are catering to because their (the politicians and the majority of voters) have their livelihoods depending on those who are described under the poverty line and not voting as continuing to feel that their voice and their needs don’t count.

    The decision to empower and educate more people can be made on the internet and the internet can be used for that purpose. I think it has great potential.

    Blaming those who are seen as intellectually dis empowered (for what ever reason) or even intellectually unfit (weather that be the under 30 crowd or anyone else) or blaming what are seen as that groups forms of relating and the way they use their resources that are less than an intellectually acceptable means for doing so, usually just seems to dis empower and oppress more people.

    Brett, you said: “If we do find ourselves in a new dark ages, it won’t be caused by the internet. It will be caused by people. (Of course, the internet will be there to document it all ;-)”

    I agree. 🙂


  8. I disagree that the internet is an elitist thing, it is perhaps a generational thing, my brother does not access, and cannot access it (with his current computer set up) neither does he want to.

    Compared with the number of people who had telephones when I was in my twenties, the internet has much greater penetration, when you consider back then the phone lines had to be fitted by an engineer, and so did the extensions.

    TV was also somewhat elitist to begin with, one only has to look at the programming of my youth, and consider as well the cost of a TV, it’s licence and all. There were times when we fell behind with the rental for the set when the repro man came in, and we were not a particularly poor family, my dad had good wages.

    The internet has served us somewhat like the Incunabulistic period of printing, in that anyone who has access to it can print out a political or religious tract and so many do.

    The tracts circulating in the reformation were like the web pages of today.

    Well Mumford if he were still alive would probably tell you that, but of course continue to relate that we are in a new dark age, indeed every new generation to be born is always in a new dark age 🙂


  9. If the elite knew they were elite they would have to come to grips with referring to them self as such. Most of us are afforded the luxury of being shielded from that understanding.

    The internet has a great deal of influence over lots of things that affect lots of people and there are very few people using it. The elite make decisions about how things are done and right now they have the most powerful tool ever which is growing in it’s ability to influence society and it’s politics much faster than it is being made available to more people.

    None of the dominate tools of information exchange during yesteryear (the telephone included) even closely resembled the the universal power of influence the internet and the technology that moves it has today. The world has never been so centerally governed as it is today nor have change been made so fast as they happen now.

    It took time to create phones, ship them, and design them so they were universally affordable. These barriers aren’t nearly as present with the internet.

    The phone was easy to use.

    I can’t prove statistics for lots of things but that is because of the same reason that the statistics don’t mean much of what they say when they refer to the “majority” of people. The real majority of living people aren’t considered worthy or being included in statistics.

    That was my point.


  10. Well before the nominomialist pitches in with a more elite understanding of sociology than my own 🙂

    I will get another two pennorth in.

    Elite is of course a relatavistic term and there is no one elite as such, elites are determined in many ways depending on how one measures influence, or simply what angle one is looking at.

    Elites can be quite arbirtrarily defined.

    Now I am not disputing that there is not recent evidence even in exam results in the UK of a correlation between highest passes and socio economic positioning of families, even the Tory party are saying that is the case.

    However when society fractures in so many other ways than just literacy, access to a fridge, access to a train station/bus/car clean water or whatever there are pockets of disadvantage everywhere.

    Again it depends upon how you spend your limited resources, I value the internet above air conditioning, hot water, and social expenditure. Disabled people tend in any society to spend more than the average for whatever socio-economic group on enabling technologies, be that a car, or a computer thus empoverishing themselves more in other areas.

    If you think the phone is easy to use, question the number of autistics on line who state that the internet is easier to use than a phone, I certainly find it so.

    In one sence I am most definately amongst the academic elite at this point in time, but then look at the whole picture, I have reached this position much later than most, and from a position of much greater economic and social disadvantage than most of my contemporary PhD students.

    If I drop out it won’t be through lack of intelectual capability it will be because of the real elites reluctance to finance social mobility amongst my “class” or because of the increasing incapacities that age brings to the weary body.


  11. I’m on a run here, I do recall a title called “The Victorian Intenet” which was essentially about the economic and social impact of the telegraph, without which of course today’s internet would not exist, most technologies being built upon a foundation of an older one,

    Yeah this is all Mumford territory, “Technics and Civilisation” or McCluhan’s “the Gutenburg Galaxy”

    My reading betrays my intellectual locus stuck in the sixties and the seventies, groovy baby …..


  12. “Elites can be quite arbirtrarily defined.” That’s true as far as a marketable definition goes but marketing doesn’t require logic or or any reality based knowlege of the subject matter you are selling for that matter. It only requires knowing what your market wants and what they want to avoid looking at.

    There has never been an elite understanding of sociology that was widely recognized…. or any true picture what lots of societies even look like. Most people aren’t factored into the equation so the information isn’t reliable. The truth just isn’t marketable.

    Intellectual capability has never been measured as it relates to the masses because most people aren’t given the opportunity to exercise their ability in that area and even when they do it isn’t recognised as being valid… not because it doesn’t show ability but because we like our ability neatly packaged by already recognised sources.


  13. Also I find the phone very difficult as well. That had nothing to do with my point nor do I consider it have any valid place in negating my point.


  14. Ed you are probably not aware of the reletavism of your own comments, but then I guess you are factoring yourself into the elite of internet users that includes all commenters here.

    I was not saying there is an elite understanding of sociology though of course the US academic hegemony has attempted such in the 50′ and 60’s with the predominance of certain schools of thinking.

    Elite is a word with a variety of understandings and contexts, and to be rigid in it’s definition is to self lable yourself into the “elite” that believes that only it’s definitions and explanations are ever valid.

    Marketing does require logic, heck it is an extension of the empirical rationalism that came in with Adam Smith and the “enlightenment” there are mathematical formulae which can be adduced to describe it all. Oh well must go or I will miss my bus.


  15. Larry,

    There is an academic view that makes all points relative.

    Once all things are described as equal in the respect of none being a necessarily better with regard to ideas, then the academic elite make the decisions and that becomes more important than truth and the academically inclined are sheided from the understanding that comes from truth.

    Relativism has it’s place in judging ideas and people so that we can be less critical and accepting of cultures different than our own. However, when relativism is just a word being used to devalue a view because it seems unimportant or inconvenient to attempt to understand, it becomes a tool that suppresses the voices of the masses.

    For the internet to be a real tool of empowerment and education, it needs to be accessible to people who (in all our ignorance and glory) are given an opportunity to have our voices heard *before* we overcome all of our academic challenges.


  16. People with less authority and power don’t need to be seen as virtuous or more enlightened. Nor does there need to be radical and immediate changes in all policies that provides them with ways to be more included although that change needs to be the goal.

    I also agree that conventional academic pursuits can and does often encourage the exercise of creativity. Without it people are often more likely to use the language and methods of attempting to establish power that are similar or even exactly identical to those of their oppressors although power isn’t necessarily their goal… it sometimes just looks that way to people who have power (societal influential power rather than individually perceived power) because they don’t understand the pursuit of anything else.

    However, unless there is a recognition that our reward systems are completely disproportionate and that those who are disadvantaged by this system that encourages failure actually make up the majority of people….and that this majority is an untapped resource that includes the greatest creativity, ingenuity, and ability that the world has never known, then our royalty will remain on their thrones until they run out of ideas to maintain the overinflated view of their worth.

    At that point, the internet and all resources that can be used by the elite will be used in order to suppress the empowerment and education of their subjects.

    As their (the elite….using my rigid definition of the word) creativity diminishes, their methods of oppression will become harsher and may ultimately be used to extinguish those whom they see as their threat. All education and empowerment would be a threat to their security.


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