Is the internet making us stupid?

Fifteen years ago, I referenced a Nicholas Carr article in the Atlantic, “Is Google making us stupid”.

I couldn’t help but think of that article thanks to a number of social media interactions over the past few weeks. People were replying to me with various Tiktok videos that were just plain wrong.

Carr’s article in the Atlantic said that the web is able to deliver a lot of information to us very quickly. This was 15 years ago, remember. Unfortunately, in doing so it tends to encourage us to not look at the information very thoughtfully.

media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Zipping along in a jet ski is a great metaphor for those 30 second TikTok videos that seem to be a major source of information for too many members of our society. I am more of the scuba diver kind of consumer of news. Superficial skimming through articles isn’t necessarily making us stupid, but I doubt it is making us any smarter. It’s like topsoil: pretty good on the surface, as long as you don’t dig very deep.

When the federal budget was released a few weeks ago, I downloaded it [pdf, 5.3MB] as soon as the Minister started speaking. I did a quick search for terms like “broadband”, “telecom”, and “internet” as I listened to her. Most Canadians have access to that same capability, but few would have bothered. I suspect many would consider the 400+ pages to be too intimidating. What I found was that the budget speech itself was misleading in claiming the government would remove costs of switching phone companies; these already don’t exist. The CRTC’s Wireless Code dealt with that in 2013. From this we see that even statements by senior government leaders require verification.

Legislation in the budget implementation bill appears to be based on misinformation that somehow reached the highest levels of government.

In the past, most people would have waited for their daily newspaper (or multiple newspapers) to be delivered the next morning to provide the details of what the various reporters thought were most important. Today, too many households go without home delivery of a newspaper. Many of us read the reports online, as they are posted (and updated).

Others listen to curated soundbites from their “go-to” political leaders. That isn’t necessarily a bad source, but I would recommend listening to political leaders of all stripes.

Since I was a kid, I have always read multiple newspapers. I grew up on the London Free Press, the Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star. We would also get the Telegram until it shut down. Today, I subscribe to multiple news sites (at least 2 of which regularly infuriate me) and I access a bunch of other sites without subscriptions.

I don’t use Facebook or Instagram for news; there tends to be too much garbage to filter out on those sites. I don’t have a Tiktok account.

Is the internet making us stupid? Not necessarily. The internet delivers a lot of information very quickly in response to what you might be seeking. But, it’s still up to the user to choose which resources are actually credible and worthwhile. Unfortunately, many search engine responses are no more reliable than the office rumour mill. It is like trying to depend on what your colleague said that he heard from his cousin.

Learning how to find quality information on the internet is a key part of digital literacy. Diverse viewpoints, and diverse sources are important tools to keep the online world from making us stupid. You need to break free from the echo chamber that amplifies similar thoughts and preconceived notions, smothering what could be important dissenting opinions. As a general rule, if none of your sources of news and opinion make you angry, I’d suggest you aren’t reading sufficiently diverse viewpoints.

I recently wrote about Alberta’s approach to upgrading digital literacy skills. I also refer you to a recent article from ITIF. I’ll have more on digital literacy in a future post.

In the meantime, how do you find consistently trustworthy sources of information?

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