The rapid development and expansion of digital technology is unprecedented, and its full impact on peoples all across the globe has yet to be fully understood. That’s in part, of course, because the expansion is ongoing, and its limits are unknown. The barest facts confronting the historian are astonishing.
Facebook, for example, launched in 2004, now has more than 800 million active users in more than 70 languages. You Tube, started in early 2005, grew from 14 million viewers in May, 2010, to more than 3 billion viewers one year later. The first Tweet was sent in 2006; in a little over three years, a billion Tweets had been sent. By early 2011, Twitter was issuing 460,000 new accounts daily! Wikipedia, launched in 2001, has become one of the world’s most widely used sources of information, counting some 400 million visitors a month by early 2011. Articles appear in 270 languages, nearly 4 million in English alone.
In a broader sense, we are all aware of the rapid pace of change in almost every familiar institution. E-commerce, buying on the internet, is radically restructuring the world of business. Online news has doomed much of the newspaper and magazine industries, and bookstores are fading. Library traffic is slowing as information of all sorts have never been so easy to acquire. Schools at all levels are changing traditional ways of learning. Censorship of any kind has never been more difficult to enforce. The United States Post Office has become redundant. And on and on. It’s exciting and fun for millions, but what of the almost inevitable pitfalls of rapid change, both to society and to the individual? They have not been ignored.
Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, is a distinguished scholar of this technological and cultural revolution. In 2009 he published a best-seller called The Dumbest Generation, arguing in thoughtful detail what the constant use of the Internet was doing to the mind and character of people glued to their computers, cell phones, tablets, and a huge variety of additional electronic gadgets. The book was disturbing at best, pointing to the growth of narcissism, anti-intellectualism, and the loss of general literacy and good manners. Bauerlein has now collected a series of excerpts taken from books, magazines, and journals by 23 authors that “present a range of judgments about the Digital Age, and digital tools and behaviors that have enveloped our waking hours.” Variety abounds in The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, texting, and the Age of Social Networking (2011), but the quality level is inconsistent. Here is a review of some of the best of the selections.
Bauerlein uses three themes around which to organize the articles, the first being “The Brain, the Senses.” Marc Presky, an inventor and computer game designer, is persuaded that young people who have grown up with all the tech toys (he calls them “Digital Natives”) literally speak another language, one that emphasizes instant gratification, fun, loads of graphics, and frequent rewards. Student brains are “almost certainly physiologically different,” rendering traditional educational methods, such as lectures, book reading, step-by-step logic, and essay examinations, hopelessly ineffective. Digital Natives in the classroom are miserable, Presky concludes; it generally isn’t that they “can’t pay attention, it’s that they choose not to.” The author urges educators to start using computer programs that can reach the millions of young people who are now, after two minutes in the classroom, dying to turn on their smart phones.
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, assures us that “we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition.” Still, he admits that even in his own case “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.” He laments, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Gary Small and his wife Gigi Vorgan, both highly qualified researchers in this field, write of “techno-zombies” and the “beginning of a deeply divided brain gap between younger and older minds — in just one generation.” On the whole, the authors are optimistic. “Although the digital evolution of our brains increases social isolation and diminishes the spontaneity of interpersonal relationships, it may well be increasing our intelligence in the way we currently measure and define IQ.”
The most provocative piece in section two, titled “Social Life, Personal Life, School,” is by Don Tapscott, a business professor at the University of Toronto who has conducted small-scale research on the general topic at hand. He is almost entirely positive about the results, believing that digitally-raised youngsters have learned to think for themselves and to be tolerant and kind. Tapscott also notes that they have attempted to create for themselves flexible working hours, often at home, and have called for the restructuring of schools to cater to their likes and dislikes. “They’ve grown up getting what they want, when they want it, and where, and they make it fit their personal needs and desires.”
Christine Rosen’s “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism” presents a short history of social networking and a fine analysis of the potential problems facing those who practice self-exposure to millions of strangers. We have all seen media stories about the sexual predators and crooks working the Internet for their own purposes. Scholars John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, in a piece called “Activists” describe how politicians and group leaders of all persuasions use the Internet to enlist and rally supporters.
Section Three, “The Fate of Culture,” features a revealing biographical piece on Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales by Katherine Mangu-Ward, senior editor of Reason magazine. And writer William Deresiewicz describes the fear young people have of solitude. “Technology,” he writes,”is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn’t say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent three thousand text messages one recent month. That’s one hundred a day….” And as for literacy, “Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity.” The author thinks this tragic, as “no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude.”
In short, this is collection of readings that should, on the whole, be helpful to those trying to make sense of the massive changes underway all over the world via the Internet and the mass media as a whole. We should remember, however, a stern warning from history: Change and progress are not necessarily synonyms.
Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur.