Archive for December 9th, 2010

Is connectivity making people smarter?

I’m not talking about those with the inclination to investigate every innovation, develop platforms for interaction or keep track of what humanity is up to, although I do wonder what Julian Assange might have done with his smarts if the Internet didn’t exist and how many other brilliant minds might have gone to seed in the days before sitting around in your bedroom in smelly sweats for days on end allowed one to reach into the guts of power of all sorts.

No, I’m thinking about the reasonably bright lot for whom ease of access to information, one-click research and breakfasting on RSS feeds just might be growing brain cells or teaching the ones already there to shake hands more often.

Historically, availability of info has been proven to do just that, and along with the process of getting smarter shit happens, as this WSJ article illustrates:

As Gutenberg’s press spread through Europe, the Bible was translated into local languages, enabling direct encounters with the text; this was accompanied by a flood of contemporary literature, most of it mediocre. Vulgar versions of the Bible and distracting secular writings fueled religious unrest and civic confusion, leading to claims that the printing press, if not controlled, would lead to chaos and the dismemberment of European intellectual life.

These claims were, of course, correct. Print fueled the Protestant Reformation, which did indeed destroy the Church’s pan-European hold on intellectual life. What the 16th-century foes of print didn’t imagine—couldn’t imagine—was what followed: We built new norms around newly abundant and contemporary literature. Novels, newspapers, scientific journals, the separation of fiction and non-fiction, all of these innovations were created during the collapse of the scribal system, and all had the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the intellectual range and output of society.

I started blogging back in 2003 on a professional site that eventually saw my posts getting over 100,000 hits a month. It was new to a lot of people then, all this Internet interaction, but the site was topic-specific … adoption … and many came to it looking for information tailored to their issues, questions and needs. Approaching what was to many a new way of gaining knowledge with an agenda encouraged participation, and a jump into one pool of info prompted leaps into others.

In pursuit of fodder, I joined a bunch of groups … Yahoo first, then Google offered forums for exchange, and the give-and-take was often lively after people overcame their original shyness.

Most new members announced themselves as such, apologizing in advance for any blunders as they tiptoed into discussions, but soon gained confidence not only with the technology, but also in their ability to convey meaning through writing their thoughts.

Unlike in the time when written material was often a one-side lecture and responses took days or weeks to lob the discussion ball back over the net, hot debates started happening in real time with only seconds passing between one point and the next.

People not only began to type faster, they learned to frame thoughts in ways that could be typed fast and understood. Without the benefit of vocal tone, eye contact and body language, words needed to be well chosen and presented if one had any hope of having meaning comprehended by the target audience.

Online groups led to social networking, and chatting and typing got even faster. People grew beyond the fear of putting thoughts in writing … an ‘engraving in stone’ idea that had some concerned for a while about the written word … and began to converse comfortably with their fingers.

The global scope gets people from widely-flung countries and cultures talking, an opportunity that serves to extend the range of thought at the same time it encourages us to consider people geographically distant to feel like neighbors chatting over the back fence. With online translators … as crap as they are … we can even communicate across language divides.

Sure, a lot of what goes back-and-forth is inconsequential bollocks … flirty bullshit, schmooze, schmaltz and preaching to the choir … but it is back-and-forth, active, so has more likelihood of developing into something of interest than sitting in front of the TV. For those who think inconsequential bollocks is what it’s all about ….

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, we actually spent a lot more time watching “Diff’rent Strokes” than reading Proust, prior to the Internet’s spread. The Net, in fact, restores reading and writing as central activities in our culture.

On a personal level all this connectivity has made life on a tiny island vastly more interesting, and, yes, it has made me smarter. Friends from all over the world share ideas and information freely and easily, so my perspective is wider. I can read news from just about anywhere, from the Red Bluff Daily to Al Jazeera, and although I often feel the overload I can click from link to link to link and examine any issue. When I have a question about anything I can find an answer … or 1,000.

Sure, I can also watch Bullwinkle pull a rabbit out of a hat … oops, wrong hat … and read all the stupid shit that floats, but even that keeps my brain working.

There is no going back … I hope, although today’s news on the ramping up of what is rapidly evolving into a war has me worried that we’re sure to see serious attacks designed to rein in freedom of information.

Those of us with Internet access … even me with my fucking unreliable Kokonet connection … have grown accustomed the routine of getting a bit smarter, or at least better informed, every day, and as more people connect the world gets smaller and smarter, both through reference sources and personal contacts previously impossible.

For example, I have a facebook friend in Niger, so can not only Wiki the country for info, I can write to my pal with questions on day-to-day living, his take on politics and events and a weather report.

When news happens … the recent tragedy in Cambodia comes to mind … it’s not difficult to get a first-hand account from someone there.

The option we have now of removing or ignoring filters placed by those with an agenda we may not see makes it possible to get closer to the bottom of any issue of interest, and as we get better at learning how to use our ‘connections’ to plumb depths we expand the concept of our place in the world.

Of course, there is a downside …

It’s a lot harder to find an excuse to be stupid.


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