The internet isn’t making you stupid. People are making you stupid.

Westboro Baptist Church "protestor"One of the perennial themes that news sources both online and offline never seem to tire of is “the internet is making us stupid”. According to science historian Robert Proctor, that’s only half correct; it’s not the internet itself that encourages ignorance, but the way it is used by groups with a single point of interest:

[Proctor] has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.”

As Proctor argues, when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he’s a Muslim; church groups have shelled out even more pushing creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.

“People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”

What is an observable certainty is that the web has become an ideological battle-ground, with dozens of little sects crusading around in defence of their own worldview, ever ready to smother dissent in a barrage of obfuscation.

What is less certain is how new this phenomenon actually is; it strikes me that the web just lets us do the same things we’ve always done, just faster and more anonymously. Somewhere in the distance, I hear the nitrous-oxide cackling of postmodern theorists… perhaps “things fall apart; the center cannot hold“. [via TechDirt; image by Logan Cyrus]

7 thoughts on “The internet isn’t making you stupid. People are making you stupid.”

  1. Lies and disinformation campaigns have always existed — one of many things that gave rise to the things that happened in the Sixties was a realization that we’d been lied to about so many things. The Internet is both a fabulous source of information — I learn something new everyday (which is all it really takes to make me happy) — and an easy way to spread untruths.

    The most important skill anyone has to learn to survive in the modern world is how to distinguish between bullshit and good information. This includes finding the bits of truth in so-so information. There are writers you can rely on, for example, but you have to understand their hobby horses and allow for them.

    In other words, critical thinking. Everyone needs to do critical thinking. Parents and schools need to teach critical thinking.

  2. Everyone have a agenda. And common sense is something that most people are short with. I really hope than,as Nancy says, critical thinking was part of the generation’s profile.

  3. For everyone praising the so called good old days, I have one question: do you see yourself as part of the former elite gatekeepers of whatever – information, knowledge, decision making about what voices are worth of consideration… ?

    If yes, then of course go ahead and praise the unlamented golden age, but make sure you fit the criteria (rich, white, WASP…)

  4. Well, Liviu, I think we should all be gatekeepers of the information that we choose to accept. I suppose people with a good nose for the truth could be considered an intellectual “elite,” but I really don’t think it has much to do with race or religion. Try looking at it this way: a health oriented person discriminates between junk food and healthy food. They choose to consume the healthy food and are stronger for it. It is unreasonable to criticize them for their healthiness, because anyone is free to work towards that goal. Sure, financial limitations can make it harder for some people, but we have to (have to!) focus on what we can do with our lot, instead of on how to take someone else’s. With regards to obtaining knowledge, the availability of information over the internet has done away with many such limitations. The main limitation now is whether or not someone has learned critical thinking, as Nancy said. Certainly, if they have not, the web can be a dangerous source of indoctrination. Back to my diet metaphor, people don’t think all things are worth consideration as food, obviously. In the most extreme cases, a poison doesn’t need to be swallowed, only tasted, before it’s done its job. Likewise, I don’t think we need to give, say, a Jim Jones a fair chance.

    I should mention, misinterperetation is every bit as dangerous as misinformation. You concluded, “go ahead and praise the unlamented golden age, but make sure you fit the criteria (rich, white, WASP…).” First of all, I don’t think anyone was overly focused on the “good old days” here. In the article, Paul specifically states, “it strikes me that the web just lets us do the same things we’ve always done, just faster and more anonymously.” So, you must be talking about Nancy’s reference to cultural changes in the Sixties. Probably, the increased availabilty of information that occured with the advent of television was largely responsible for those changes. These days, I feel like television is ~95% worthless. However, the internet is potentially doing for our generations what television did in the Sixties. Thus, we can have a relevant discussion of parallels from those times. A discussion of parallels between the past and present is inherently not “praising the so called good old days,” because that phrase implies a relatively deteriorated present. Anyway, I shouldn’t get too techinical, cuz I still have some things to say.

    You mentioned the necessarry criterea for praising the movements of the 60s, “(rich, white, WASP…).” I realize that you said this out of some emotion and not reason, but I’m still going to point out what’s wrong with your reasoning. I don’t agree that one must have the same economic, racial or religious background that comprised the majority of a movement in order to appreciate it. We wouldn’t say, sure, the Rennaisance is cool… if your an Italian Catholic! Or go ahead and praise the Civil Rights Movement. Just make sure you’re an African American! Aside from that, you’re asserting that the only people changing in the 60s were WASPs. The Black Panthers, Caesar Chavez, and Catholic President John F Kennedy, were, in fact, not rich, white, Protestants.

    I’m not trying to be mean spirited, but your post is a perfect example of what Paul is talking about in his article, with one important difference: you are a single person, probably unaffiliated with any organization that would benefit from the opinions you’ve posted here. The statements that you’ve made probably do serve some purpose for someone, but not for you. The obfuscation of truth occurs on the individual level, as people reiterate special interest slogans without even really knowing why. That’s a problem.

  5. Bravo Johnny C.! Just rememeber…
    People are stupid and you(we) are one of them!…
    As soon as you realize that people are stupid and you are one of them, life become simple.

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