I wrote this for a paper and usually I’m not a big fan of academic writing, but Professor John Carroll is a chill dude and writing papers for him is always fun. Plus, this deals with the kind of stuff I like reading about in blogs anyway. So here’s an essay with special emphasis on some articles and shit we had to read in class.
Is Google Making Us Stupid?
If someone had told me, when I was thirteen and scouring second-hand bookstores in Dhaka for unread Frederick Forsyth novels, that in my lifetime I’d be able to download all of his books in a matter of minutes, and find out everything I wanted to know about him in a matter of seconds, I wouldn’t have believed it. And if that person then had the audacity to say that popular consensus among media critics would be that the resource would reduce my intelligence, I’d have laughed.
For you see, thirteen-year-old Arafat Kazi might have had bad taste in spy novels. (29 in two weeks and still guilty.) But I wasn’t daft. Even then, though I hadn’t heard of the Internet, I knew that omniscience was a good thing.
In this class and elsewhere, I’ve read several representative arguments for and against our connected culture, hypermedia, the Internet, and all its attendant changes like shorter attention spans, smartphones, memes, communal curation, immediate reactions, the hivemind, and the ten thousand other things that differentiate life today from ten, twenty, thirty years ago.
Nicholas Carr, in “Does the Internet Make You Dumber?” and “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, argues that we have shorter attention spans now than we ever did, even though he acknowledges that “Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival.”
In Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson argues to the contrary, saying our culture is collectively seeking more complex forms of entertainment because we have the luxury of being connected.
The problem is, both arguments remind me of the Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Dangling Conversation”—
“We speak of things that matter,
Of words that must be said:
Can analysis be worthwhile?
Is the theater really dead?”
These arguments exist because they are the Questions of the Age, and so they must be made for form’s sake. We must have Meaningful Insights on these issues. But most pundits overlook the bigger picture, or at least aspects that modify the big picture.
I agree with Steven Johnson in that pop culture has gotten more complex because it has the opportunity to do so, and that opportunity has created a demand for complex media. But at the same time, when Johnson talks about complex media, he really only means:
a) Television shows with labyrinthine plots,
b) Games with open universes, and
c) TV shows which call for emotional intelligence: a development over older programs that relied on archetypical characters and linear plotting.
The problem with Johnson’s argument is that it’s limited to TV and video games. If you look at the popular audio-visual entertainment that TV replaced, i.e. drama, you’ll find that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is just as carefully plotted as any Simpsons episode, and the levels of humor—from Nick Bottom’s pratfalls for groundlings to Oberon and Titania’s gender politics for us hi-falutin’ scholars—are similarly structured.
As for emotional intelligence and sensitivity, think of a Georgian housewife at the dressmaker’s—with her husband’s friend’s younger wife.
We didn’t suddenly learn to be sophisticated after Tim Berners-Lee created the Internet (and rested on the seventh day). Paradise Lost was the most popular book of its time, after the Book of Common Prayer.
So, essentially, we have Nicholas Carr, who’s arguing that we have shorter attention spans, but without elaborating on a consequence beyond gripes and doomsaying; and we have Steven Johnson, who makes a good point—that many more people are becoming culturally sophisticated, thanks to the internet—but ignores that the 20th and 21st centuries do not have a monopoly on cultural sophistication.
However, the sum of human achievements is increasing exponentially, thanks in no small part to technological progress, but also thanks to things like population density, specialization building upon itself, and so on. So while we’re decrying the death of individual intelligence, the human race as a whole is doing pretty darn well.
Look at your collective intelligence. Now back at the individual. (If we carry the Old Spice pastiche to its full extent, it ends with “I’m on a high horse.”) I’ll say that to answer the weighty question of Google making us stupid, what we really need to measure is mass involvement in the high arts and creativity. You might say that this is arbitrary, and you’d be right. But every test is arbitrary. And at least Aristotle said that actualization was a life of contemplation.
Let’s set aside the matter of merit in art and creation, because that takes thirty years to decide anyway. The short of it is, that our connected universe has made it unprecedentedly easy to create and share media. Movies, music, blogs, mashups, remixes, slash fiction, insightful comments, YouTube arguments, poetry, DeviantArt portfolios, music for MySpace, BandCamp, amateur video contests, and that’s just the tip of a very deep iceberg.
(I think our complete immunization to imagery that would have otherwise horrified us should be acknowledged in a footnote if not discussed in the main essay. These extremely shocking media have become part of our culture–there are goatse cakes. Tangentially, I think Johnson addressed the volume of total porn output, but I’m not entirely sure.
I also think that both Carr and Johnson ignored something Marshall McLuhan foresaw, that hypertext and the ability to instantaneously share media would change our language.)
The early 20th century saw an opening up of the classicist boundaries that governed Art (with a capital A, by gum). The mind-forg’d manacles of formalism were cast aside. But the desire to create was not enough. For every Kenneth Anger, there were a thousand stifled, unfulfilled clerks who typed and filed away meaningless lives (holy shit using The Onion in academic context!!!!!). The 21st century has fixed that. The most important change of the last decade is this: that more people have the ability to create more kinds of art than ever before.
As we know, the ability to create at will be more likely to bring forth photoshopped cats than Grey Albums by DJ Dangermouse. This will always be true, I think. But so much access, and so much opportunity—ay me, it makes a single tear form on the manly brow of this child of the 80s.
I predict that in the Fall 2018 iteration of this class, your main concern will not be intelligence or art, but rather machines and personhood. Just three weeks ago, on October 4, Slate ran the following article: “iMama: My son is mistaking a smartphone for his mother.”