Sunday, May 29, 2011

Reading Can Also Make You Dumb

Facebook:  New York Times  executive editor Bill Keller argues that social networks are making our brains go mushy.
Facebook: New York Times executive editor Bill Keller argues that social networks are making our brains go mushy.

The Internet makes us stupid. It robs us of our souls, leads to a flattening of our personalities and reduces our attention spans. This nonsense is now being spouted from an unexpected source: Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Internet-savvy New York Times

The demonization of tools, not despite but because of their usefulness, is one of the more ludicrous phony arguments driving the recent debate over the Internet and digitization. Pocket calculators have diminished our math skills, some say, making us less able to do calculations in our heads than, say, people in the 1950s.

Computer hard drives and mobile phone SD cards are robbing us of the last of our memory abilities, most of which that damned printing press had already stolen from us. At the moment, GPS systems are destroying our sense of direction. Oh, the many ways in which machines are depriving us and causing our brains to shrivel.

"We are outsourcing our brains to the cloud," New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote last Wednesday. According to his logic, solving real-world problems -- computing tasks, information storage and finding our way around -- is a step in the wrong direction, because it increasingly softens our brains.
Keller's lament about our lost cognitive skills and abilities proves to be absurd if one extends his arguments a little farther into the past. Nowadays, very few people can weave baskets, bake bread or till a field with an ox, a harrow and a plow. In fact, merely the physical exertion of tilling a field would be too much for us. We have all read our fair share of malicious remarks in recent years about welfare recipients in Germany who were simply not up to the rigors of harvesting asparagus or cucumbers.

But the fact is that much of the working population would hardly be capable of performing these and other similar tasks. There is no doubt that an 18th-century farmer was tougher than we are, and that he could probably endure pain with far fewer complaints (and, as a result, also had a much shorter life span). This suggests that the decline of mankind must have begun with the invention of steam-driven farm machinery, if not with the use of draught horses.

Criticizing technical progress on the basis of the ways in which it makes our lives easier is both absurd and reactionary. And yet this attitude, expressed openly or clandestinely, is gaining steam once again. This is because of the speed at which digital technology is currently changing the world, which some see as a painful experience.

Digitization seems to be perceived as all the more torturous the later it enters a person's life. Just as an aside, it is a scientifically proven fact that man's ability to adjust to change begins to decline rapidly at about 35.

Keller's Masochistic Experiment
Bill Keller was born in 1949. At first glance, his outburst against the digitized world seems so astonishing because, as Keller writes, his own newspaper, the New York Times, "has embraced new media with creative, prizewinning gusto." The newspaper was one of the first to create the position of "social media editor" to professionalize the interface between the New York Times website and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. In fact, the Times is seen as a model of online journalism.

Keller uses Twitter himself. To write the article, he conducted what he calls "a kind of masochistic experiment," in which he tweeted "#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss," and waited to see what would happen. As expected, most tweeters disagreed with Keller. This, by the way, is the same way people in the offline world here in Germany would react if they were told that they are stupid or on the road to becoming stupid: They would be annoyed. It's an easy experiment. Anyone can try it: Just walk into a sports bar/library/samba dancing school and shout loudly and distinctly: "Football/reading/samba makes you stupid! Discuss!"
In contrast to the presumed outcome of such real-world experiments, Keller's tweet, astonishingly enough, did not just trigger rejection. In fact, as he writes, it also "produced a few flashes of wit" and "a couple of earnestly obvious points," including the remark: "Depends who you follow." Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis, whom Keller did not quote in his article, shot back via Twitter: "Bill. The NYT no longer tells us what to discuss. Twitter does. ;-)"

Nevertheless, Keller concluded, based on his personal evaluation of the reactions to his tweet: "Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid."

The Price of Innovation
Keller writes that he fears that this time the price of innovation could be to lose "a piece of ourselves," a concern he embellishes with the usual, often heard objections to digital communication: that it is not "social" at all, that it only distracts us, that it promotes flat, trivial forms of communication and, even worse, it threatens "our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity."

The real reason for this journalist's surprising reckoning with the social network of the present was apparently an experience with his 13-year-old daughter. He writes that he and his wife had recently allowed her to open a Facebook account. "Within a few hours she had accumulated 171 friends, and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth."

One could imagine how Keller may have recounted this experience to a group of New York Times senior editors, all of whom must have had similar experiences with their children, and how the ensuing debate, interspersed with jokes and interjections, eventually led to someone suggesting that he write something about the subject, because it simply had to be said.

It's almost a given that fathers whose 13-year-old daughters have discovered a new passion, be it horseback riding or Justin Bieber, generally observe something similar to what 62-year-old father Keller experienced with his daughter: an incomprehensible, excessive fascination for a seemingly trivial object. The fact that the New York Times executive editor used this as an opportunity to diagnose a possibly soul-destroying effect of social media suggests a lot of bottled-up angst about the present (and relatively little confidence in his own child).

Generation Internet

The journalist offers no evidence for his sweeping fears other than his personal discomfort. Keller's 13-year-old daughter probably does know most of her 171 Facebook friends personally. Many studies in the United States and in Germany have shown that for the most part social networks do in fact reflect the real social environments of their young users. This does not apply to the same degree to 62-year-old newspaper executive editors.

People over 50 have a critical disadvantage compared with those under 40 (roughly speaking) when it comes to the communicative Internet: Most of them got to know it as a joyless work tool, writing their first e-mails to coworkers or their boss, and not to a girl they were secretly in love with. They have Facebook accounts because they feel that they should, not because it's a venue for their friends to communicate with one another. And they do communicate, via Twitter, for example, with total strangers. It isn't terribly surprising that this sort of communication produces conversations that some would characterize as "flat," "not social" or "trivial."
The fact that such people might feel that they have a dearth of quality conversations probably has more to do with their work loads than with the Internet. It is just as impossible to derive general statements about the effects of social media on the spiritual life of mankind from this notion as it is to derive general statements about the usefulness of pulleys from the average bicep diameter of modern man.

By Christian Stöcker
Translated from the German by Christopher Sulta