Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Internet Rots Our Brains

For a number of years, I've heard complaints about the internet, that it promotes social alienation and shortened attention spans. It strikes me that these are the same complaints about TV that we heard for 50 years.

I don't think we can really blame the Internet or TV for the dumbing-down and brutalization of our culture. Our culture is becoming brutalized because appealing to our inner Neanderthal is enormously profitable. A lot of money can be made by pandering to our basest instincts from lust to revenge. Sex and Death, especially in combination, have always been sure-fire crowd pleasers since the Paleolithic era. Spectacles of sex, violence, and glamor are even more certain money makers than striking oil.
Politicians and corporate autocrats have every interest in keeping our attention focused on that bright shiny new thing over there (so we won't notice what they are doing over here). It helps that we are easily bored and always demanding bright shiny new things. The Internet and TV are means to ends, they are not causes. Responsibility lies not with the technology, but with the humans using it. Hammers deserve no credit for building the Taj Mahal, and no blame for killing people.

My generation disses the current younger generations (just like the previous generations dissed us) for being shallow and self-absorbed; as if we were all listening to Mozart and joining the Peace Corps. As I recall, we were all getting wasted and listening to Led Zepplin. If we had back then the games and toys that kids have today, would we really have played with them? Hell yes!

The social alienation and brutalization were there before the technology, and would still be there if we got rid of our gadgets. Alienation and brutality are there because someone somewhere makes a lot of money off of them, and because we want to be left alone to enjoy our little fantasies of power and revenge (since we really don't have much power and those who have a lot of power will never be held accountable).


rick allen said...

The internet is a wonder, and, if we rot out brains with it, we have only ourselves to blame.

I think there is something to be said about the "attention span" effect. Instant access does create a habit of expecting instant enlightenment. Learning is a slow process (for most of us). Knowlege is not just a matter of getting a fact fast, but of assemblage, reflection, absorbtion of style, synthesis. All of that can, of course, be done before a monitor, and I'm sure that coming generations will be able to do it better than I can, but I remain more comfortable with the printed page for serious reading.

The ability to reach things is, to me, nothing short of miraculous. This morning I am far from home, read something in a friend's blog mentioning Cincinatus. In a minute I had the Latin story from Livy before my eyes. Compare that to poor Chaucer, who had to travel to Italy to aquire a copy of the Decameron.

On the other had, consider the issue of capacity. This isn't just an electronic issue. Every year more books are published than one person could possibly read. But on the and I could spend our lives reading, not junk, but good, worthwhile, thoughtful literature and journalism on the net, and nevertheless never read the same thing.

It's the question of a common "canon." Does the vastness of what's available now doom us to fragmentation? I would guess not, at least so long as our educational system and intelligensia still privilege some works, and encourage some common core of a literary and artistic heritage.

It is distressing to read of those who choose to limit their news source to FOX or MSNBC, but I remember in one of Walter Percy's novels his writing of France in the thirties, where everyone had a party, and read only the party journal, and hated with a great passion anyone who read the other journals. You are absolutely right that we don't really need the net to be narrow, boorish and hateful. It just facilitates those vices, as it is capable of facilitating virtues.

Counterlight said...

Very interesting.

I've thought about the ever shortening attention span myself, and I can remember blaming it on television. Perhaps it's a consequence of the whole pace of life accelerating. The painting that I do is very labor intensive, and even without teaching commitments would take me weeks and months to finish. Galleries and dealers usually want artists who can crank out product quickly and reliably. If that is true for something as quaint as fine art, I can only imagine what it must be like for other enterprises.