Does the internet make us stupid? Probably

Since the development of the internet during the 1990s, information has become more readily accessible to Americans than at any point in human history.  Most people carry around a smart phone in their pocket with the ability to search for answers to many questions which once required either expertise in a field or access to certain books.  In 2021, the access to information is truly breathtaking.  Want to know the exchange rate for the dollar to the riyal in Saudi Arabia? A person can find the answer in real time.  Can’t remember who sings that song which keeps repeating in your head?  Google the lyrics or use one of many apps which can listen to the song and identify it and the artist in a matter of seconds.  That’s where America is in terms of technology.  Approximately 85% of Americans own a smartphone in 2021, which dramatically increased from 35% only 10 years ago.  Amazon claims it has sold more than 100 million ‘Alexa’ devices which you can audibly ask questions and receive answers.

The democratization of information enables Americans to dramatically improve their lives in a number of ways.  This is undeniable.  Yet, American society suffers in its development because of the ease with which we can access information.  The wild flow of information creates pseudo-experts on important topics, negatively impacts our children, and creates a disregard for knowledge.

Widespread availability of information on the internet has created a subsection of pseudo-experts on every manner of topic

These individuals, armed with articles from sometimes less than reputable websites, spread questionable (or downright incorrect) information.  Bad information, even from the well-intentioned, perpetuates political, religious, scientific, and cultural problems, which are not easily corrected.

The lightning fast speed of the internet combined with smartphones establishes an information base which exceeds the ability of humans to grasp in many cases.  None of us want to admit when the complexity of a topic might be beyond the scope of our understanding, but we struggle to identify our limits.  Psychologists have identified a concept known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where humans often overestimate their abilities in various fields or disciplines.  They lack awareness of their shortcomings — and the people in the lowest quartile of intelligence tended to overestimate their abilities the most.  

People generally don’t realize they’re on Mount Stupid

While the average person can thoughtfully read information online about local news, or understand how to put together a stereo, many of these pieces of information are written with the intention of being understood by everyone.  The audience changes when the topics become more complex.  Searching for articles about nuclear technology, education, philosophy, or literature, even a person of above average intelligence will find information they fail to understand. 

Society sees this play out in terms of political ideas proliferated through social media.  Everyone has an opinion, and conveniently finds information to justify their perspective.  Too often, though, the political knowledge of Americans lacks the accuracy folks want to believe.  In the last year, the nation has seen a similar trend in medicine, with respect to COVID-19 and development of vaccines.  

The point of this essay is not to advocate for the vaccine or against it.  However, everyone in the United States appears to now possess a medical degree.  An overwhelming number of doctors, nurses, researchers, and other medical personnel recommend that people take the vaccine as the best way out of the pandemic.  If a person does not wish to take the vaccine, that is certainly their prerogative. But if a person does not take a vaccine, do they have the requisite knowledge to make that decision (outside of a consultation with their primary cary physician)?  Open access to a widespread network of information, even good information, can lead to poor decision making if not well understood.  Would any of us substitute our judgment for that of a trained, licensed, and experienced medical expert?  

A number of Americans find their information on or through Wikipedia, the preeminent encyclopedia of the internet.  It’s free, it’s easy to follow, and it has articles on every topic imaginable.  In the early days of Wikipedia, the online platform permitted open access to creating or altering its content.  This permitted bad actors to edit the site and write false information.  The site stepped up its governance about who could create or edit content, but problems persist.  When information is introduced, authors often cite their sources from books or links.  Yet, the links are often dead, leaving readers no knowledge about source material.  Additionally, Wikipedia is trying to police millions of articles in multiple languages with hundreds of thousands of credentialed editors.  There’s a reason academic institutions do not permit students to cite Wikipedia as a legitimate source.

Prior to the internet, books, newspapers and magazines delivered the information to the public.  The printed word had standards of publication.  The internet has no such gatekeepers of information.  While that can be beneficial, it presents a problem.  Aside from Wikipedia, the ease of creating a website allows for a flood of information and not all of it is good, reliable, or helpful.

The glut of websites also translates to a world where a person can easily find a ‘source’ which matches their pre-conceived ideas about an issue.  Correct information and truth no longer matter, as long as a person feels justified in their beliefs.

Access to widespread information has a negative impact on the children

I would not try to convince someone that access to the internet does not have some wonderful benefits for children.  However, the major concern in protecting children comes from the lack of a true set of guardrails protecting young people from bad information.  Any parent understand that they cannot monitor their child all the time, and even the best child will make foolish decisions.  What do you expect would happen when you arm naive, impressionable young people with access to the world?

First, we should note that given the choice, children will most often select the path of least resistance.  Yes, adults are not too far off in their desire to choose the easier, quicker path, but for children, the impulse is greater.  In fact, they don’t have much in the way of impulse control at all.  To put this into the correct context, when a person ‘googles’ a topic online, how often do they look beyond the first page of results?  Only about 30%, at best.  The optimized search results of an algorithm determine what we see as trusted sources.  

School librarians are important to the education of our children

Top results from a search engine don’t necessarily mean a person would always find inaccurate information, but many internet users, including children, lack the requisite skills to discern between good and bad information.  A 2016 Stanford University study examined middle school, high school, and college students’ ability to spot accurate sources from advertisements and the results demonstrate what a person might suspect.  The ‘digital natives’ are being exploited.  It hasn’t improved in the last five years, as Stanford continued their study and the results weren’t any better.  I also should add that this doesn’t mean children are stupid, but it does mean they are vulnerable.  

Why do our students not receive this type of training in schools?  One of the reasons is undoubtedly due to a significant decrease in the number of public school librarians.  Since 2008, the United States public school system has lost nearly 20% of its school librarians.  Why?  When funding cuts happen, administrators often see the librarian as more expendable than a classroom teacher.

Children without discernment become adults without discernment.  They overestimate their knowledge, comprehension, and abilities.  These individuals are bad employees, they pass on their habits to their children, and they tend to possess a sense of entitlement.

The internet devalues knowledge 

How can we not value knowledge if we created a network of computers to access it?  The ability to access the information has become more important than the information itself.  Why bother memorizing facts and information if a small handheld device can direct you to that information?  In some aspects of life, this makes sense.  A doctor doesn’t need to memorize every potential drug interaction before prescribing it.  He or she can refer to a database which cross-references drug interactions and have an answer in seconds.

However, another medical scenario shows the importance of knowledge.  If a surgeon performed an operation on a patient’s heart, we expect that surgeon to have intricate knowledge about the heart, the procedure, problems which could occur in operation, and how to correct those problems.  In many instances in the world, knowledge and understanding of a topic or subject is simply irreplaceable. 

Knowledge matters, for a variety of reasons.  Maybe a person has no desire to pursue medicine, or a field which requires a broad knowledge base (though I can’t personally imagine a job that doesn’t require a broad knowledge base).  The acquisition of knowledge about the world, particularly in early years of education, leads to better understanding in terms of reading comprehension.  Knowledge leads to understanding, application, synthesis, etc. (see: Bloom’s Taxonomy) and in 21st America, we the foundation before we can build higher order thinking.  

American students’ achievement in science, math, and language arts pale in comparison to other industrialized nations.   The test scores for student achievement U.S. History, geography, and civics show consistently low achievement.  Don’t worry, adults, this lack of knowledge includes you too.  A recent study revealed that only about 1 in 3 Americans could pass the citizenship test given to naturalized citizens.  Not surprisingly Americans over the age of 65 scored highest.   Certainly, there are a number of other factors which contribute to undesirable test scores.  But my point here is that we know that we ought to be embarrassed by our lack of knowledge.  We just don’t do anything about it.

Knowledge is essential to Americans who value our system of democracy.  Good decision making about who we choose as policy makers is more than just knowledge, but never less.  A well informed citizenry is essential to this nation’s future.  Moreover, the knowledge of who are, who we were, and our shared experiences help establish who we will become as a nation.   

Unfortunately, the internet created an ocean of information and most people do not have the skills to navigate it.  Society also does not want to navigate this ocean.

This is what we do with the power of the internet — but, admittedly, it is funny

One can also see the irreverence to knowledge in the types of information consumed through the internet.  Again, it’s not my contention that the internet does not have many wonderful uses which have positively impact humanity.  But there’s a price to pay.  At best estimate, the internet contains:

  • 1.13 million pornography sites 
  • 2 million cat videos on YouTube alone 
  • Approximately 400 million food pictures on Instagram
  • Hundreds of millions of memes
  • 1 billion + GIFs 
  • Billions of Facebook and Twitter users

The content of the medium reflects what we value — and it’s clearly not knowledge.  The above is only a snippet of what we consume online.  

In 1985, Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, an astonishing book which dissected the negative impact of television on society.  Part of the Postman’s premise included the notion that George Orwell’s 1984 was not the real concern of the future.  Postman posited that the vision of the future, regarding television, was found in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World.  In Huxley’s wild vision of the future, humans were distracted by technological innovations and numbed through the use of a common drug.  

Postman asserted that television acted as the drug of choice for Americans.  The government, if they had any intentions of deceiving the public, didn’t need “Big Brother.”  Citizens were doing it to themselves.  Postman wrote, 

… the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.  Which is why Aldous Huxley would not in the least be surprised by the story.  Indeed, he prophesied its coming.  He believed that is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled.  Huxley grasped, as a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions. … Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody.

Postman’s concern about television were well founded.  Nearly three decades later, though, and television isn’t the only popular method to dull one’s mind.  Is there any denying that taking pictures of one’s food might be the single greatest display of a decadent society?  

The massive database which is the internet has so many positive uses, but the world uses it as another distraction.  We willingly hand over our time, money, and personal information to a number of these websites.  Postman warned, 

There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth.  When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

The most popular websites and contents aren’t devoted to knowledge, or the betterment of humanity.  

It would be unwise and most likely impossible to restrict the free flow of information on the internet.  However, society stands at the precipice of great danger because it won’t address the problems arising from this cultural shift.