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OPINION

Is the Internet Killing Critical Thinking?

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.

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.


5 Comments

  • Some people will take the utmost effort not to think, and not to have to make decisions. I’m not sure there’s anything you can do against this tendency.

    As for other people, the Internet allows them, nost of the time, to get more information and read other opinions, provided they have the time and the right mind to do it.

    Still, there’s something in what you write. The problem lies is in two important sources of information:

    1. Wikipedia: many people, especially students and pupils, tend to accept the information given there as the whole truth. That leaves little space for other descriptions of the facts which appear there.

    2. Search engines: most people won’t bother to look for information beyond the first 20 items produced by the search engine. The first items are usually those which are part of the regular sphere of knowledge, excluding items with dissident ideas.

    What can be done?

    Every teacher and every parent should train their pupils and children to read the information which appears in the Internet in a critical manner, being careful not to accept information from hatred sources, and information which is repeated in many sources and is a complete lie.

    BTW, information presented in the TV channels may be even worse then that presented in the Internet.

  • Richard,

    You write:

    "…users devote their spare computer processing power to research diseases or climate change.

    Who benefits from these projects?"

    Doesn’t the first sentence answer the question posed by the second? Aren’t those who benefit from research into disease and climate change the sick and, well, every living thing on the planet?

  • I personally read opposing views and opinions which helps crystalize my opinions. Regulating the internet to create a "Balance" creates an "UnBalance" of information. Information should flow freely. I see very few exceptions to that.There are many things I see that I believe are simply untrue but, I do not believe it should be wiped off the net. No one has or should have the right to decide what another can read. When we go on that road it leads to the filtering of information to a certain belief, thought or idea which is highly dangerous to a "Free" Society. No one is superior. Frighteningly our country is heading in that direction.

  • While it may be easy to avoid information via the internet as opposed to "being forced" to sit through a CBS newscast, forums such as this tend to open up discussion boundaries and create fertile ground for critical examination of issues.

    Beyond simple forums, the internet may cause more fragmentation of opinion because so much more information is available and more than one side of each story is told. It is, perhaps, the greatest single safeguard against "thought police" in the history of the world.

    It certainly will not make "critical thinkers" out of MTV or CBS enthusiasts, but the internet offers the means to critically evaluate the "news" or subjects that are important to the readers.

  • If you take a bit of time to read about World Community Grid you would see that research institutions across the globe (Japan, France, Brazil, United States) get access to massive computational time to conduct research that they might not otherwise be able to perform. In return for getting access to this computational power (that is provided by volunteers across the globe) they are required to put the results of those computations into the public domain. This is a very positive thing.

    The volunteers get to choose which projects their computers contribute to. Additionally, the projects that are run on World Community Grid are areas of humanitarian interest – including areas that are not typically a focus of western research such as Dengue Fever.

    Please read: http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org/projects_showcase/viewSubmitAProposal.do

    and

    http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org/projects_showcase/viewResearch.do

    For full details about who ‘benefits’ from these efforts.

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