Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Internet: Humanity's Friend or Foe?

This term paper was written by one of my WRT220 (Writing About the Apocalypse) students and turned in this week. I thought his message was worth sharing with friends and readers of my blog column. I found this to be an immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking read. As I like to tell my students: the best papers are the ones that teach me something. This one did. Well cone, Jacob Bremmer! I have posted a picture he gave me at the bottom of his paper. Kudos, Jacob!!

The Internet: Humanity’s Friend or Foe?

By Jacob Bremmer

Throughout our history as human beings, we have evolved and developed new ways to communicate. This, above all else, is what has set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We started with grunts and groans, moved up to pictures on cave walls; spoken word came about, and finally, written language. We moved from writing on stationary rocks and brittle clay tablets up to papyrus scrolls and eventually paper. As technological advances increased, information has become more readily available; modern advances such as the telegraph, radio, telephones, televisions, and now, computers have made information more accessible than ever.

Today, anything you want to read about is just a Google away. Despite this ever-growing abundance of available information, it seems to me the amount of general, useful knowledge known by the younger generation is rapidly declining, as well as the amount of face-to-face interaction. The rising use of smart phones, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and even 24 hour news networks have contributed heavily to the incessant increase of mostly irrelevant information and the decline of face-to-face interaction, which is crucial to everyday life. This generation does not know what it is like not to live such constant, and yet veiled, connection to the people and things around them. They do not know how to change the oil or a headlight in the car that they rely on every day (both extremely simple tasks), but they can tell you all about Kim Kardashian's million dollar wedding in 140 characters or less. This overload of irrelevant information has brought us to a very crucial point in human history: will this new Internet generation, raised on quenching the undying thirst for distractions, take advantage of the positive uses of the internet, or fall into social disrepair?


I am in no way the first one who has been concerned about the dangers of our thirst for more visceral forms of distraction. In fact, this concern has been voiced for almost as long as we have been able to voice it. Plato wrote about man's inability and further, his unwillingness to see the real world some 2300 years ago in Book VII of his Politeia, where he introduces the famous Allegory of the Cave. He surmises that most people see a life as though they were watching the shadows of a puppet show; they cannot see the actual puppets themselves, just the silhouette it casts on the wall. The majority, who had the ability to think and speak but could not grasp the “forms” or ideas of the things they were seeing, would go about their lives thinking that those shadows were things themselves. Today, however, instead of seeing shadows of ideas on the walls of caves, we see them on the walls of our Facebook friends. Only if we turn our heads to view the objects themselves, to grasp the ideas that are represented, will we break our delusion.

Neil Postman wrote in his 1985 book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death of an even earlier, wiser, and more formidable example that stirred his thoughts on the dangers of different forms of media:

I refer specifically to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment of which prohibits the Israelites from making concrete images of anything. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.” I wondered then, as so many others have, why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. (Postman)

It seems important to mention that the belief in an abstract being requires the ability to grasp and put faith in abstract concepts. As media has progressed, we have moved from entertainment from the conceptual media requiring us to use our imaginations (such as books) to concrete pictures of things (as seen in the visual representation brought forth by television). This “picture book” society poses an inherent problem for the intellect of humankind by offering distractions from the ideas that are important in maintaining and furthering humanity along the same path. One key example of this is talked about by Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. He mentions the shift in political elections from dealing the ideas of a particular candidate, as was the case before television endowed the masses with the ability to see particular candidates and speeches, to one where visual imagery such as body language and physical appearance is of more importance. Postman, in talking about how William Howard Taft would not be considered as a candidate today, said that “the shape of a man's body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing the public in writing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television.” (Postman, 7)

I am reminded of the lead up to the 2012 primaries where the media heavily criticized the potentiality of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as a GOP candidate because of his physical weight. In this way, we are moving from a society based on words and ideas to one based on images and appearances.

Chris Hedges in his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, makes the case that “the culture of illusion thrives by robbing us of the intellectual and linguistic tools to separate illusion from truth.” (Hedges, 45) He cited a study conducted by The Princeton Review that:

Analyzed the transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates of 2000, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. … In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln spoke at the educational level of an eleventh grader (11.2), and Douglas addressed the crowd using a vocabulary suitable (12.0) for a high-school graduate. In the Kennedy-Nixon debate, the candidates spoke in language accessible to tenth graders. In the 1992 debates, Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did Perot (6.3). During the 2000 debates, Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Gore at a high seventh-grade level (7.6).

This drastic decline in rhetorical significance represents the decline in American's interest in ideas and abstract thoughts. He concludes that we have fundamentally turned away from the ideas that candidates present and focus instead on the power of their narrative, truth notwithstanding. This is why we see so many negative ads during the political season, many of which are simply not true or taken completely out of context; the worst part is that nobody bothers to look into whether or not these accusations are true or not (even though websites like Politico look into the truthfulness of accusations, most do not bother finding out the truth), the majority just nod along and add it to the list of why we are not voting for a particular candidate. We do not vote for someone because we like their ideas, we vote because we like the candidate, rather, we like the story that the candidate presents us. Politics has moved from an important process in exercising our rights for self-determination to become another gear in the entertainment machine, a circus sideshow act like the fire-eater or sword-swallower.

The Instant Gratificulture

Another key shift from in our culture that I would like to address here is the consumerist nature that drives us. We have become a culture of instant gratification and quick fixes. I cancan not even count how many times I have heard people say, “I’ll just buy a new one!” instead of fixing what was broken. This mindset goes hand-in-hand with the drastic decrease in quality goods; instead of spending the money on a quality made item that can be fixed if it should ever break, we are more than happy to buy cheaper, goods of inferior quality multiple times. Oh, and we want it now! Aldous Huxley, who warned us in Brave New World about the dangers of a culture believing that “ending is better than mending,” would be rolling over in his grave at the lack of functional knowledge in today's society. Perhaps I am biased in this respect since I have always had the curiosity to know how the things I use every day work and family members that have taught me things I could not figure out on my own. I draw on no more than my own personal experiences in this matter. For example, the car of a friend broke down on him a few weeks back; the engine would not turn over. He opened the hood and gave it only a cursory glance before calling a tow truck to haul it to the nearest garage. Some $350 later, he had a working car and no desire to learn what was wrong with it or how to fix it if it happened again. Turns out, he had a bad starter motor, something that costs roughly $60 and is relatively easy to change out. To me, paying to have the car towed to a garage and having them perform a simple job like this is a perfect example of how today's society views things.

A major example of a society that still possesses that 'know-how' of generations past is the Amish. This incredible sub-sect of society relies solely on themselves for their livelihood. They till their fields with horse and plow, erect buildings with no more than hammer and nails. They rely on their farm animals to get them into town. They know everything they use inside and out, and can fix something if it breaks. They do not rely on modern conveniences such as electricity to make their lives easier; they are living proof that anything can be accomplished with a little elbow grease and a minute of contemplation. We could learn quite a bit about life from these people if we just slowed down to listen.

Effects of the Internet on Information

The increases that new technologies, such as the Internet, have brought to the abundance and speed of acquiring information are a principal part in the downturn of thought. A half century ago, the general speed and accessibility of information was much lower; we were confined to huge libraries full of books that had to be picked through in order to find something of relevance. Computers have completely automated this process, making it much easier and faster to find pertinent information on a subject. Something as simple as looking up a word in the dictionary takes Google just .35 seconds to perform, with millions of results. This incredible speed and accessibility of information has only served to reinforce the ideas of instant-gratification that society is embracing.

The advent of the internet has brought us to a point of no-looking-back. In his book, Neil Postman has gone through great lengths and many pages to show American's historical obsession with printed material. He points out the huge emphasis on literacy in Colonial times and the strong desire of the people to read. “From 1650 onward, almost all New England towns passed laws requiring the maintenance of a “reading and writing” school, the large communities being required to maintain a grammar school, as well.” (Postman, 32) With this focus on teaching the skills of reading and writing compounded with the availability of printing presses as early as 1638 and rise of newspapers and attention to books over the subsequent centuries, it is no surprise why Americans have become so fascinated by the Internet. It makes printed word much easier to be found and read at our convenience.

It is clear, then, that the Internet is a great resource for improving our education, but it has been argued that it is no substitute for face-to-face learning in a classroom setting. According to a study published by Jay Liebowitz in Volume 51 Issue 3 of College Teaching, classes were studied that taught exercises related mainly to face-to face skills and, as such, the author was skeptical as to whether such skills (such as dealing with employees who were not performing properly) could be taught in a solely online class. Nevertheless, he found that “online students believed that they achieved the course objectives to, at least, the same extent (98 percent) as the face-to-face students.” It seems obvious the potential of the internet in improving our understanding of the world, but many like me believe that unless we actively seek out useful information, it blends into the distracting din of the entertainment machine.

There are countless websites that simply extend the boundaries of television culture. We can now watch our favorite TV shows on our smartphones or iPads while we ride along in the car or on a train. MySpace and Facebook allow us to keep in contact with friends we have not seen in years because they live across the country, and to keep in even closer contact with friends we see more often. We spend hours a day looking to see what our friends are up to. The internet, which offers such novel ways of spreading ideas between people, has been reduced to a way to share pictures of cats. This is not to say that ideas are not sparked on such online collaboration websites such as Facebook. In fact, we can look to Egypt for a perfect example of how these social networks should be used to spread ideas and inform people in order to facilitate change. They managed to inform and organize enough people through the internet to start a revolution in January 2011 and overthrow an oppressive regime.

Oppressing Ourselves

Unfortunately for us, our oppression is self-inflicted. As Chris Hedges talks about in Empire of Illusion, we readily throw ourselves into the chains of slavery to the entertainment machine, willingly passing by thought about ideas and sitting down to be entertained, shutting our brains off in the process. We have found a way to become active participants in the drama that we are so enthralled by on television through the internet. “Reality” shows, such as The Real World, that put people in constant conflict with one another may have brought this into acceptance in actual life, not so much in person where it could cause trouble for the aggressor, but on the internet under the veil of anonymity and separation. There has been a shift from conflicting ideas as a way to advance those ideas to conflict for the sake of conflict. In fact, according to a study done my Kaveri Subrahmanyan and Patricia Greenfield in Volume 18, Issue 1 of the psychological journal The Future of Children, “teens now conduct a higher proportion of their communication through writing in an electronic medium rather than face-to-face or voice-to-voice—in effect, relatively depersonalizing the process of interpersonal communication.” (Subrahmanyan and Greenfield, 136) This depersonalization of interpersonal communication that is provided by the internet seems to “produce a disinhibiting effect on both sexual and racist behavior,” leading to a drastic increase in cyber-bullying, which could be filling the need our society has gained for conflict.

The Internet, Learning, and Family Relations

The depersonalization could be a good thing, however, if it has anything to do with the findings of Jay Liebowitz in the previously noted study on online learning in college students, stating that he was impressed by the “thorough, insightful, analytical, and well-written paragraphs and pages that the students posted on the bulletin boards.” (Liebowitz, 82) Behind the screen of a computer, the depersonalization of communication between parties allows for ideas to flow freely and time for responses to be revised and thought through.

Depersonalization of those who we talk to on the internet also allow for more self-disclosure than teens would normally feel uncomfortable talking about with those they know. In a study done by Gustavo Mesch in 2006, published by the Journal of Family Communication, it was found that family relations were negatively affected when the internet was used for social communication.

Social scientist Claude S. Fischer argues on the contrary in his book Still Connected, Family and Friends in America since 1970, saying that,” Some of the ways in which Americans engaged with people in their immediate circles changed, but the intimacy and support of close family and friendship ties stayed about the same” from 1970 until now (Fischer, 94).

Richard Fisher even goes so far as to argue that Facebook has done wonders for our social lives, bringing up findings by sociologist Mark Granovetter in 1973 who “showed how the loose acquaintances, or “weak ties”, in our social network punch far above their weight in their influence over our behavior and choices (American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, p1360). Granovetter found that a significant percentage of people get their jobs as a result of information provided by a weak tie.” Facebook, by its very nature, increases the amount of “weak ties” we can keep in contact with and, therefore, increases our opportunities to glean relevant information. Fisher goes on to say how “their [Facebook] acquaintances provide them with more trusted and relevant news, information or recommendations.” (Fisher, 2)

These studies have shown generally mixed feelings about the benefits and dangers of using the internet for social matters. Some say that it hasn’t caused a significant change in offline relationships (Fischer), while others (Subrahmanyan and Greenfield) come to the conclusion that teens use of the Internet for social matters did, in fact, take much away from family relationships. Still others (Fisher) praise social networking websites for the all-important “weak ties” that influence our behavior and choices, and Jay Liebowitz had nothing but good things to say about the feasibility of the internet to teach interpersonal skills.


In the end, there is much conflicting evidence on the nature of the Internet as it pertains to social development as well as the ability to facilitate learning, but it is also difficult for researchers to keep up with the blazing speed with which technology advances. As it seems social development can be affected by the role the internet plays in teenagers lives (Subrahmanyan and Greenfield), it is crucial that the educational benefits of the internet must be taken advantage of, especially as children are increasingly spending time indoors rather than out. We must instill the desire to learn in the minds of our future generations if we wish to avoid the prophecy posed by Joshua Meyrowitz in his 1985 book No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior that “the increasingly sophisticated use of interactive computer graphics and the drive toward computers that can understand and use human speech, both suggest that mastery of literacy may soon be as irrelevant to the basic operation of computers and computer controlled machines as it is to the operation of television sets and automobiles.” (Meyrowitz, 328)

Siri, the talking iPhone, brings us one step closer to this fear of Meyrowitz, which is no doubt a shared consensus with Huxley’s Brave New World. “Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. . . that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. . . that we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.” He saw, unlike an oppressive Orwellian dictatorship, that “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think.” (Postman, vii) We must make sure that this vision does not come to fruition by educating our young people, teaching them to think of all perspectives on an issue instead of going along with the rest of the sheeple. We must instill the insatiable desire to learn in the coming generations in order to keep this nightmare just that.

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