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.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Nonsense is easier to find and invariably come out as the top Google hit. The re-mailing of idiotic emails from 2001 continue to circulate just the names changes. Facebook is full of links to woo medical advise, and pseudo-science. Wikipedia articles are full of intellectual toxic crap. Everyone wants an instant sound-bite of knowledge. Google, read sentence, feel smart, move on.

  • The Internet certainly hasn’t been the great leveler that the utopians claimed. However, neither is it the cause. The US has consistently scored low for socio-economic mobility. In fact, a 2006 study of developed countries had you second worst after the UK. (The main cultural difference being that most Brits are highly cynical about the possibility whereas there’s much more of a popular belief in it in the US). The Nordic countries were top and have been for some time. That suggests the Internet simply isn’t a factor either way.

    The old school capitalists also sold unhealthy products to developing countries, used sweatshops, were complicit in death squad killings of trade unionists etc. Let’s not fall into nostalgia here. The best way to undermine the hucksters is to offer a new and better vision, not to call for a return to the old ways. I actually think the Pirate Party are a good example of this. They’ve risen in conjunction with the decline of the traditional left and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As people lose faith in collective solutions, then things pop up to fill the gap. So you have the Pirate Party, you have the nutty conspiracy theorists and, in a worst case scenario, you have the rise of Golden Dawn. We are in this situation because of a failure of the left.

    I’d agree that much of the ‘internet theorists’ talk in a way divorced from people’s lives. There’s a relatively simple explanation for that. The vast majority of the voices come from relatively well off middle class backgrounds. So they see the world from that perspective; they’re largely cushioned from the real bread and butter issues. However, we should be realistic. A lot of what you and I talk about on here (media piracy, fair use etc) also fall into that category. I’m not convinced that someone who is struggling to put food on their table would see “the general diffusion of bad information” as an important issue. And, as I said, I fully include myself in that criticism. The difference is a) I actually come from a working class background and have first hand experience of poverty and b) this is something I mainly do as a hobby in my spare time. In the ‘real world’ most of my campaigning is actually done on issues like defending the National Health Service, anti-fascist work, fighting attacks on benefit claimants and other more street based issues. I suspect that neither of those are the case for a lot of people online who seem to see this as their primary activism focus.

  • It’s funny how “the Man” went from a Multinational Corporation, a wall street banker, and/or politician to some poor shlub trying to make a couple of dollars selling his creativity.

    This new generation is either buying in to idea that they are all going to be millionaires in a couple of years or just blindly do/think what the Mega-Corporation tells them. I feel sorry for their awakening.

    P.S. internet make smart me more.

  • The link between lowered intelligence and the proliferation of bad information on the internet is vague at best. There are a myriad of issues at play including socio-political, economic income disparity, a fundamentally broken education system, etc. To look to one thing (the internet) as the culprit is simply finger wagging disguised as intelligent analysis. People are still pointing at Social Media, Videogames, TV, Movies, Books, etc. Yes, the level of insubstantial noise on the internet and in the media is vast, but so is dialectic conversation happening. Example: This post encourages dialectical conversation and I found it on the internet.

    There is a revolutionary education movement happening with open source education. Just look to all of the universities that have opened their curriculum for free online. No degrees can be offered, currently, but the opportunity for higher education is a website away.

    These kinds of discussion also don’t address the 3rd and 2nd worlds that are now moving towards 1st world living. They are able to reap the rewards of our technological progress and in subsequent generations may be better off for it because they are getting higher capacity access at information and education.

    The dumbing of America and other first world countries is a multi-tiered issue. We are all complicit in this and pointing the finger at any one source is to alleviate ourselves of responsibility. What needs to happen is some of the following:

    – Stop trying to fix the education system. Rebuild the education system. This means a fundamental shift in how we view teaching and how we value education. Open source education = good.
    – Encourage (ie. demand) our political leaders to have more rational and dialectic debate on all issues and to shift more money towards building better education infrastructure.
    – Encourage rational dialectic conversation amongst ourselves. Yes, we do need to look at ourselves and raise our own awareness in our culpability to the issue. When a sports athlete, ceo, celebrity, etc. gets paid more than a teacher, police officer, fireman, public servant, etc. we have a fundamental societal issue in what we value.
    – Work towards economic equality. Reams of data show that the more equal a society, the happier, more intelligent and more productive.

    These are just some of the following things that need to be done. They are being worked on and the progress and solutions will be a long game generational outlook.

    One last point I want to make before signing off. These types of articles are usually myopic (no insult intended). We need to keep in mind that, as a historical overview, societies are becoming better at an accelerated pace. Just compare where humanity was 200 years ago or even look even further back all the way the dark ages. Compare the intelligence of then vs now.

    We need to have a more healthy and dialectic overview conversation on education and intelligence than any more finger wagging nonsense at any specific societal component.

    • I think you’ll find that we are generally in agreement. I don’t blame digital age tools and the Internet for dumbing down America, although I can certainly cite ways in which it might exacerbate dumb trends. Like you, I think the reasons are myriad and complex, and my main point is that perhaps we should stop talking about the Web as a panacea, which is unquestionably the message that comes from the industry and the so-called “web community.” I think many treat the the Internet as something that can only contribute to enlightenment, but there is a lot of evidence that this is not the case.

    • I’ll take issue with “open source education” revolutionizing anything. Perhaps I’ve missed the point but it seems that what “open source education” means is no more than online resources, like the Fordham Medieval Source Archive. I defy anyone to learn Medieval History from those sources alone. Some other bits are packaged up as lesson plans or resources around which a lesson could be planned, but they don’t provide a whole learning solution. In fact this is non much different than my local education department in teh 1980s that had (and probably still does have) a resources centre which contained a repository of lesson plans and material submitted by various schools in the area. Anyway scriffling around Merlot much of what is available seems to be a bit like the computer games where the game itself is free but in order to complete it you need to have spent $100s on in game purchases.


  • There is hard proof that the wealth gap is increasing, but NOT that it is due to technology or the Internet. But I agree with the idea that the Internet and really technological progress in general has contributed to the wealth gap. I’d even extend it to say it contributes to unemployment as well. It just seems like a natural consequence of increased automation reducing the demand for human labor and what not.

    Technology is also a power concentrator. This has been true since the first cave man found a stick (“technology”) he could bash heads in with. That put him in an inherent advantage over stickless cave men. This extends all the way to the now, where being privileged in the technological zeitgeist of today means increased power and wealth.

    But every now an then a technology comes around that equalizes things a bit. In today’s case, I think this will be 3D printing (or alternatively, nanotechnology). It has the potential to put the “means of production” into the hands of the individual.

    • So does a lathe and a router and plenty of ‘blokes’ have been doing that in their sheds for decades.

      Technology makes the mundane easier, but it also moves the skill set and the expectations on. Take wildlife photography for example a competent amateur can create photos that would have been in the realm of a first rate professional some 15 years ago. If I go back and look at the wildlife photography that amazed us in the 70s and 80s by today’s standard they are quite poor. The issue though is that, despite the wealth of amateur works, the professional skill set has increased such that they are still capable of amazing us.

      Back to 3D printing and this hasn’t changed anything. In less technological parts of the world, people can fix things because the things they are using cars, engines etc are simpler. Maybe they can’t fix technologically advanced stuff but make technologically advanced stuff easier to make and the technology and skills leap ahead, still leaving them being unable to fix the tech+ stuff.

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