Are Americans Dumber in the Information Age?

Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders. … The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.
– Ronald Reagan, The Guardian, 1989

The knowledge and power of the Information Age will be within reach not just of the few, but of every classroom, every library, every child. 
– Bill Clinton, Second Inaugural Address —

Remember the promise?  The most hardscrabble kid in America (in the world) will be able to reshape her destiny with the wealth of knowledge that will be freely available to her through the Internet. Tyrants will melt in the sunlight of so much information that every citizen will carry in the palm of his hand. Prosperity will be enjoyed by more people in more places than ever before.  And despite a great deal of statistical and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, technologists are still selling this same message.

CISCO currently runs a commercial about the near future of interconnectivity, envisioning a world that moves like a well-tailored suit to accommodate every human need or whim  — a place where an ambulance tells traffic lights to turn green en route to a hospital. How do we not raise an eyebrow at this image in particular while the US government was only recently shut down because we can’t all agree that every citizen has the right to be in that ambulance? How is it that we are more (or at least as) divided on so many basic issues?  Doesn’t everybody have the Internet? Yes. And unfortunately, it tells everyone exactly what he wants to hear.

About a week ago, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the results of a two-year study that tested thousands of adults in 23 countries on basic skills in literacy, math, and use of technology.  Americans scored very poorly for a highly-developed nation, especially in the tech and math departments. Yellow journalists and humorists couldn’t resist the urge to offer variations on Americans being the dumbest people on Earth, but I like this more sober assessment by Sadhbh Walshe, writing for The Guardian, in which she focuses on wealth inequality as a very likely culprit in America’s score.  It’s really no surprise that people with money can afford better educations and, therefore, do better in life and continue to be people with money, who raise kids who will get better educations.  Ditto the cycle of poverty, poor education, and continued poverty for a growing number of Americans.

But what happened to the expectation that the Internet would help universalize education, or at least fill in the gaps for those less privileged?  We’ve had a whole generation grow up appended to these devices and their applications.  So, why do things seem to be getting worse, not only in education itself, but also with regard to overall prosperity? The internet industry will go to great lengths to protect the sanctity of the web from even the most imaginary threats to its design as a never-ending and unregulated bazaar, but the dreamy images in the advertising are a stark contrast with real human experience.  We buy the pitch about a 15-year-old girl in the slums of Detroit looking up astronomy data and becoming head of NASA, but we ignore the more typical reality that thousands of 15-year-old girls in middle-class suburbia are getting bullied online or being pressured to snap a few naked “selfies” or more likely just using these technologies to attend to the same, not-so-educational, matters that have long been the purview of teenage girls.  Meanwhile, that girl in the slums of Detroit has yet to benefit in any tangible way from the expansion of all this so-called innovation that, by nearly every measure, only seems to feed the economic cancer of our age — wealth consolidation.

In his new book, Who Owns the Future, Jaron Lanier compares the mortgage-backed securities crisis and media piracy in order to draw attention to the cultural trend that wants to tear down systems — Lanier calls these levees — claimed by one group or another to be barriers to prosperity.  “The Wall Street mogul and the young Pirate Party voter sang the same song,” writes Lanier. “All must be made fluid.  Even victims often cheered at the misfortunes of people who were similar to them.” The design of the digital age leads to wealth consolidation, and not even by capitalists like those of the early 20th century, who at least built infrastructure, but by hucksters who bundle worthless debts into phony securities or who trade in trafficking your family photos or an artist’s work without permission or payment.

When it comes to addressing the ill-effects of digital technology — whether it’s about media piracy or rape threats against a journalist or just the general diffusion of bad information — academics, lawyers, and hacktivists rush to the defense of the systems and their designs. Thus the conversation remains theoretical and cold while we continue to ignore the flesh-and-blood realities of everyday life.

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