The internet has approximately 1.8 billion users. Internet has made creating and disseminating text, sound, video and images cheap and easy. The bulk of the stuff on internet is authored by people who have absolutely no idea of the standard and practices regarding the material they are publishing, thereby producing endless streams of mediocre stuff which erodes the norms about quality and acceptability. But of course, that’s what always happens. Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid. This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.
As Gutenberg’s press spread there was mass hysteria among people not believing in the system that this new project may lead to dilution of the beauty of the literary works (there were fears of dismemberment of European intellectual life).
Wikipedia took the idea of peer review and applied it to volunteers on a global scale, becoming the most important English reference work in less than 10 years. Yet the cumulative time devoted to creating Wikipedia, something like 100 million hours of human thought, is expended by people every weekend, just watching ads. It should be noticed that it only takes a fractional shift in the direction of participation to create remarkable new educational resources.
Similarly, open source software, created without managerial control of the workers or ownership of the product, has been critical to the spread of the Web. Searches for everything from supernovae to prime numbers now happen as giant, distributed efforts.
Of course, not everything people care about is a high-minded project. Whenever media become more abundant, average quality falls quickly, while new institutional models for quality arise slowly. Today we have The World’s Funniest Home Videos running 24/7 on YouTube, while the potentially world-changing uses of cognitive surplus are still early and special cases.
Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”
The response to distraction, then as now, was social structure. Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers.
The case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we’ll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as we integrated literacy. This assumption in turn rests on beliefs: that the recent past was a glorious and irreplaceable mark of intellectual attainment, that the present is only characterized by the silly stuff. There are likewise reasons to think that the Internet will fuel the intellectual achievements of 21st-century society.
First, the rosy past of the pessimists was not, on closer examination, so rosy. The decade the pessimists want to return us to is the 1980s, the last period before society had any significant digital freedoms. Despite frequent genuflection to European novels, people actually spent a lot more time on the television than reading Proust, prior to the Internet’s spread. The Net, in fact, restores reading and writing as central activities in our culture.
The past was not as golden, nor is the present as tawdry, as the pessimists suggest, but the only thing really worth arguing about is the future. It is our misfortune, as a historical generation, to live through the largest expansion in expressive capability in human history, a misfortune because abundance breaks more things than scarcity. We are now witnessing the rapid stress of older institutions accompanied by the slow and fitful development of cultural alternatives. Just as required education was a response to print, using the Internet well will require new cultural institutions as well, not just new technologies.
A post after a long time, but please believe I have been busy even though I don’t have any internship or anything else I am bound to do.
FIFA World Cup is now just a day away. 🙂
posting using MS word changed the font setting of my blog.