Weekly Reading Insights-Week 1

“Does the Internet Make You Dumber?” by Nicholas Carr


“Does the Internet Make You Smarter?” by Clay Shirky

While I love a sound debate, I fear that there was no real argument when comparing these two articles considering the effects of increasing internet use on mental cognition.  Carr had the easy job in the fight, and simply because of nature of how the internet works.

At the very root of its design, the Internet clearly causes our attentions to be more short-lived.  Indeed, if each of us were polled about our own typical use, we’d have to admit that (unless we’re required to for grad school, heh) we rarely finish reading entire pieces of writing we find online.  I daresay that quite typically, we don’t even get online to do so.  We go looking for a specific answer to a question or specific tidbit of information or for a song or a video. And even though there’s often plenty of information and reading to wade through until we get to what we want to find, we bounce through all that information to get to what we want. We skim. We hit the high points. We don’t consume even small percentages of the information we wade through.  Indeed, we’d be preoccupied for a while if we tried to do that during any given search, due the overwhelming amounts of information available online and with a mere mouse-click.  And I believe it’s largely due to that voluminous accessibility and a sense of being overwhelmed that we don’t completely read through what we can find online–aside from the fact that we’ve been conditioned not to even bother.

Carr characterizes the result as a “division of attention.” So much online stimuli combined with the many links and extensive search results we encounter can cause us to turn fairly quickly away from a matter at hand to investigate something else.  We are encouraged not to “pay deep attention,” which, as explained in the article, is how neuroscientist Eric Kandel claims that we learn. Therefore, if we’re no longer conditioned to invest because of the internet, we don’t learn as deeply as if we ingested more comprehensively.  Gone are the days where even a healthy percentage of our society in general reads entire books.  Internet surfing as a replacement has resulted in a distractable society that doesn’t glean as much deep knowledge and understanding.

Carr does point out that our visual skills are one aspect wherein the internet increases our capabilities. Advancing video/visual technology causes our capabilities of learning visually to increase.  But he also points out that visual learning can yield more knee-jerk mental processing.  Indeed, studies have indicated that when we learn by visual processing, our secondary thought processes are more typically a product of reaction rather than synthesis.  This further contributes to our lessening of focused attention and, as Carr says, it makes us shallower.

Carr also points out multi-tasking studies which indicate that those who attempt to learn while performing a series of tasks simultaneously do not perform as well on assessments.  Once again, the inability or unwillingness to pay attention to a function at a time causes us to be less effective at each function.  I see many of my classmates attempting this multi-tasking in function in class.  With their laptops open and while they ‘listen’ to lectures, they meanwhile chat on Facebook or surf the internet.  It’s an inevitable tendency, and according to what Carr suggests, the scenario undermines deep learning.

Shirky, on the other hand, chooses to contend that the ongoing development of the internet and its uses is a contributor to learning.  In his article, he claims that “the net. . . restores reading and writing as central activities in our culture.” I can’t disagree.  It’s easy to acknowledge that our society as a whole is reading far more than it has in years past due to the availability of information at our fingertips online.  But Shirky’s allusions to earlier writers and thinkers such as Martin Luther and Edgar Allan Poe as they mused on historical increases in publishing simply undermines his argument that increase is necessarily beneficial. When overabundance can be overwhelming and can also inject lesser quality, the deep learning discussed by Carr is undermined.

Shirky is likely accurate that Internet use will eventually cause us to become smarter.  But based on our general habits now and much like the immediate aftermath of the creation of the printing press, I believe Carr wins this argument with the contention that the internet might be making us a little dumber.

“The #freemona Perfect Storm: Dissent and the Networked Public Sphere” by Tufecki Zeynep & “Beyond Gingras: Tech Innovation Alone Will Not Democratize Media” by Seth Ashley

While solid arguments like those above both for and against the internet’s role on our cognition will continue, there is no argument about how networked our society has become due to the internet’s advent.   We’ve veritably become a global society. And social media is largely to thank for that.  In ways that we’ve never seen before, we’ve become a connected world culture.

The capability of the media to foster or even create public sphere is well-documented.  From the scribes of history to the creation and use of the printing press and much moreso with the invention of radio and television and obviously the internet, mass media has created communities among us where they previously did not exist. When Habermas first developed this social science concept, the means and norm of coalesced public opinion was in British coffee houses.  Consider the internet and social media, then, the new coffee house.  Habermas would’ve been all over it.  On a far larger scale and with much more power than ever before but in the same spirit, social media and the internet provide us a new means of public opinion discussion and, occasionally, a change in public policy or action.

Zeynep is careful to allege that a Twitter hashtag could’ve instrumentally been the tool that fostered public sphere enough to cause Egyptian activist Mona El Tahawy to be released from political detention.  But the author is certainly not willing to discount that possibility.  As in that scenario, social media allow factors and components from many walks of life to converge around a concept or occurrence and in many cases to prompt results or change around it.  It’s clear how Twitter played a role in El Tahawy’s instance.

It appears that Ashley tends to question this possibility, however.  Arguing against Gingras’ contention that the internet has removed the ‘gatekeeper’ role of mass media (essentially making everyone a reporter and increasing the likelihood for public participation to effect change), Ashely points out evidence that the internet is not as democratizing as could have been hoped.  Ashley contends that Google serves as its own kind of gatekeeper, and that social revolutions conducted through Twitter and other social media means have even been overblown.  Ashley speaks of the powerful (and rich) that inevitably end up with control of what initially might seem as new vehicles for democracy (as he suggests happened with radio and television).

While I understand this logic to some extent, I perceive that it will be fairly far in the future when this authority will show itself in the internet realm.  Technology and accessibility with regard to the internet in 2014 is a far different world than the early advent of media like radio and television. More people can access the internet and social media at much less expense.  Because that trend is rampant and worldwide and because dpublic spheres have already been formed and political changes effected in many cases, the capabilities of authority to usurp some freedoms on the internet will face greater challenges than with radio, television, etc.

Too many instances like the Arab Spring and more specifically El Tahawy’s release have already occurredat the hand of innovation for modern culture to release its autonomy on social media and the internet, as Ashley contends will happen. Similar arguments can be seen in the other readings for the week.  Social connectedness via social media will be the order of our culture for some time to come. The public will not so readily relinquish its ownership of such powerful tools for social communication and change.












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