Internet Make Us Stupid?

Complaints about the Internet remind me of complaints about America. In First Things, Last Things, the admirable Eric Hoffer responded to laments by intellectuals about the quality of American life:

"What is there in America that prevents an educated person from shaping his life, from making the most of his in-born endowments? With all its faults and blemishes, this country gives a man elbow room to do what is nearest to his heart. It is incredible how easy it is here to cut oneself off from vulgarity, conformity, speciousness and other corrupting influences and infections."

The point isn't that the corrupting influences and infections aren't there -- rather that no one is forcing them on you. I feel the same way about the Internet: it's easy to avoid the stupid parts.

Nicholas Carr argued last summer that spending too much time online is rewiring our neural circuitry in a way that makes us less capable of reading deeply. It's a well-written article, but I'm not convinced: I just don't believe one can forget how to read deeply, any more than one can forget how to ride a bicycle.

Carr writes, "The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas." I'm with him on this, except that the word "printed" and the word "book" are misleading here -- the same text read on the screen of an electronic device will set off the same "intellectual vibrations..."

If you're not reading enough lengthy works of fiction or non-fiction, don't blame the Internet. As Tobias Wolff said in an interview, "time is your enemy and everything else is your friend." The Internet is your friend, but know when it's time to log off.

4 thoughts on “Internet Make Us Stupid?”

  1. James, technical comment: for some reason, you blog refuses to show up in my google reader. When I click on the link on the right “Subscribe in a reader”, the last entry that appears as available is “The Business Section.”

  2. Regarding the dysfunctional feed: I successfully pinged Feedburner and double-checked everything and it said the feed was working fine. But it’s (obviously) not. So, it’s either some Google glitch that will correct soon, or I’ll have to dig deeper. Our other feeds seem to be working fine, though.

  3. Doris Lessing, "Writing Autobiography" — "… the electronic revolution. This is evidently affecting our brains. I can observe the process in myself: my attention span is shortening. Probably it is because of television, the way we constantly switch attention from one channel to another, but we don't really know the reason. We have no idea what the end of it all will be, any more than the people knew who lived through the print revolution. We can say either that we are a very careless species, recklessly undertaking great changes without asking what the result will be, or that we are helpless in the face of our own inventions."

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