While driving today, I caught part of a discussion on the Diane Rehm show about how a “climate of distraction” is eroding our society and political system. (Audio here). The two guests were Maggie Jackson, author of “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age” and Rick Shenkman, author of “Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter.” Jackson talks about how people are distracted through a world of “hypermobility” and “McThinking” that is breeding a generation of Americans who don’t know how to critically think, evaluate information, and delve in-depth into issues. Meanwhile, Shenkman, is largely in agreement and bemoans the fact that the American populace is growing dumber and less engaged, especially with politics and civics. The entire show also mirrored an article I just read by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic Monthly, titled “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”
Jackson, Shenkman, and Carr, to varying degrees, all sound a frustratingly reactionary alarm against a digital age. I acknowledge the validity of some of their concerns, but my basic complaint comes down to one of what and how we value as “intelligence.” It is less that I disagree with the value they place on traditional forms of intelligence, but that they refuse to recognize (with the exception of Jackson) a new form of intelligence. There remains a deeply entrenched idea of traditional scholasticism within the academic community – an idea that remains somewhat stuck in an analog age. Quite simply, a lot of people don’t consider the ability to move quickly and critically within the digital realm, to locate and evaluate sources of information on the internet, as a legitimate form of intelligence.
Carr writes that “there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation” on the Internet. I completely disagree. If I had the choice between sitting down for three hours and reading a book on a historical topic, versus spending those three hours researching the topic online, I could make a strong case that I would be able to get a much richer, balanced, and in-depth understanding of the topic through Firefox than if I would through Oxford Press. Blogging in general, the give and take of reading, evaluating, and reacting to other people’s thoughts, is decidedly a form of “fuzzy contemplation.” While I wouldn’t discount the value of a traditional monograph, I believe that alternative and new forms of scholasticism and intellectual inquiry are too often dismissed.
Meanwhile, Shenkman focuses on politics, and while he makes some decent points about the uninformed nature of the American electorate (the continuing myth of a 9/11-Iraq connection, for one), I think he overemphasizes the dangers without recognizing the benefits. This is surprising to me, as I greatly respect what he has done in the field of digital history, specifically founding the History News Network. Nonetheless, I found myself disagreeing with him during this show. Specifically, he mentions the “myth of the people” that has become solidified since Reagan, in which politicians celebrate “the voice of the people as the voice of God.” This spurred some particularly narrow-sighted callers, all of which skated blindly and contentedly into the realm of blatant elitism. Being a history major, it reminded me of the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, with Shenkman and the callers largely falling into the worst traps of the Federalists. Would giving voting rights to all free males give way to violent, chaotic mob rule? Wouldn’t a propertied, monied class of citizens be better fit to act as caretakers of the young republic? While I don’t think they would agree with these statements, a lot of what was said on the program smacked of a modern-day form of this elitism.
The problem is not the internet. The problem is what our educational system values as learning. We are largely educated in an increasingly archaic system that doesn’t teach us how to properly use digital technology. Just as I believe that history is anything but memorizing the details of wars, kings, and explorers, I believe that the internet is anything but skimming gossip headlines, Youtube videos, or profile pages. Approaching history and the internet actually require and facilitate many of the same basic skills – a critical evaluation of sources, connecting disparate ideas, and identifying broader themes and patterns. The more I write, the more I realize this topic touches on so many others – gated academic communities vs. open-access, evaluating history curriculums, the digital participation gap, a technological generation divide, etc. I look forward to delving into more of these areas in the future.