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Is the Internet Killing Critical Thinking?

By Richard Adhikari
Sep 8, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Like Alice's Restaurant in the Arlo Guthrie song, the Internet lets you get anything you want -- from views on politics or science and technology or religion to recipes and gossip. Oh, and of course, news.

Is the Internet Killing Critical Thinking?

However, few people do more than skim the surface -- and as they do with newspapers, most people tend to read only what interests them. Add to that the democratization of the power to publish, where anyone with access to the Web can put up a blog on any topic whatsoever, and you have a veritable Tower of Babel.

So, does the Internet make for shallowness of thought? If so, why?

Just a Channel, Ma'am

The Internet is a worldwide distribution channel, and it's based on speed and reach. Nothing shows its value more than when it's used to disseminate information in times of trouble, such as when Iranians put videos of post-election riots on the Web.

At the same time, nothing shows up its capability to give the most mean-spirited the ability to put forth their views as white-power blogs, for example -- or the case of Lori Drew, an adult woman living in Dardenne Prairie, Mo., whose cyberbullying of 13-year-old neighbor Megan Meier led the teenager to hang herself. Drew, by the way, was charged with misdemeanors -- accessing computers without authorization -- and convicted, only to have the convictions thrown out by a federal judge.

So, the Internet is a mixed blessing, and that raises the next point: Should we censor the Internet so that only wholesome material is put out there? If we do, who should be the censors, and who will watch them?

Plato, never a fan of democracy, advocated philosopher kings and control of the arts to shape the minds of children in the way the state preferred. To paraphrase his point of view, the public had, in essence, the thinking ability of comatose gnats and needed the guidance of properly trained people. That view, of course, prompts another question: Who shall decide what training is proper?

It's All in Your Mind

Let us assume, for the moment, that we have no right to shut off the myriad of voices erupting onto the Internet, as that would mean restricting freedom of speech. What is it, then, that leads people to read shallowly, when they have so much information at their fingertips?

One possible explanation is our reading habits. As previously noted, people will read what interests them most, and there's little anyone can do to change that.

Information overload is another factor. We have to limit how much information we take in so that we won't get overwhelmed. The Web serves up so much information that it leaves readers little time for anything else, and often people tend to scan lots of Web sites or subscribe to several RSS feeds to assuage their hunger for news that interests them. Think of it as the reader's equivalent to a junk-food addiction.

That addiction, and the plethora of information available on any one topic, leaves little time for anything else. "Somebody who reads only newspapers and, at best, books of contemporary authors, looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses," Albert Einstein wrote in a note on classic literature for the Jungkaufmann, a monthly publication, in 1952. "He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else."

That tendency is strengthened by the demands of advanced industrial societies. In such societies, the productive apparatus tends to become totalitarian to the extent to which it determines both socially needed occupations, skills and attitudes, and also individual needs and aspirations, Herbert Marcuse said in his book, One-Dimensional Man.

The Power of Critical Thinking

"Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual, and industrial psychology has long since ceased to be confined to the factory," Marcuse says. People's outlooks tend to be shaped by their society and they want to fit in, to belong. Could that be why no one has questioned IBM's and Intel's projects to harness unused computing power in the public's computers for public projects?

Last year, IBM launched the World Community Grid, which taps the computing power of the public. Last month, Intel unveiled a software program that lets Facebook users devote their spare computer processing power to research diseases or climate change.

Who benefits from these projects? Well, IBM and Intel get lots of free publicity. They possibly also get huge tax writeoffs. What do the members of the public, whose computers are being used and who pay for the electricity to power the computers get? Higher electric bills, probably, and a vague feeling of satisfaction.

Why didn't anyone ask why the blue-chip companies that came up with the projects didn't dedicate some of their own spare processing power for these worthwhile causes?

It could be because of the tyranny imposed by advanced industrial cultures that Marcuse speaks of. In advanced industrial cultures, the productive apparatus and the goods and services it offers impose their own social system on the public, Marcuse contends. Entertainment, transportation and means of communication "carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers and through the latter to the whole."

Eventually, any concept that cannot be accounted for through empirical observation in terms of operations or behavior will be eradicated, Marcuse says. News is empirical observation of a sort, even though it may be misreported due to the observer's prejudices and bias, so it takes precedence over uncomfortable modes of thought that may lead to digging deeper into a question or an issue.

So, can we change people's reading habits so they can think critically about what they read on the Internet? Perhaps. Should we do so? Only if we consider ourselves appointed the guardians of the public weal. The technical term for that is "hubris."

TechNewsWorld writer Richard Adhikari loves technology but is concerned about its effect on society as a whole. His gods include Blish, Tiptree and Heinlein.

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