Sunday, August 8, 2010

Is the Internet Making Me Stupid? Fritz Schiller Might Hold the Key

On June 14, 2010, I confirmed that my computer homepage, MSN, had engaged on a long and premeditated campaign to sabotage my intelligence. I’d suspected this for a while, but it was not until a headline read, “How to Tie the Perfect Pony Tail” that I had what no Wikileak procurer ever possessed—full and unhindered cooperation.



Yes, MSN was handing me this evidence without restrictions. The headline and photo of a woman getting her hair tied in a pony tail took up the top third of my computer screen. No matter how urgently I tried getting to my hotmail account, the duo flashed before me again and again, as if to say, learn to tie the perfect pony tail or your world will collapse.

The world, it seemed, was collapsing, at least for the women and children in Kyrgyzstan I’d recently read about in an old-school, print edition of the New York Times. Ethnic and political violence had driven these families from their homes and they were now refugees, living with fear, dysentery and desperation.

Kyrgyzstan, I thought, is that where Borat is from? No, no, that’s the country to the north, Kazakhstan. These citizens were fleeing to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan? I wonder how to tie a perfect pony tail.

No. Don’t do it, Sarah. This is how MSN gets you. First your hair, then your brain.

Was the internet making me stupid, or did I come to it that way?

The Information Age is now the Too Much Information Age. On August 4th, the blog Techcrunch quoted Google CEO Eric Schmidt: Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.

This blog, your tweets, a neighbor’s photo album on Shutterfly all contribute to the overload. And, what will happen when we generate even more information? Techcrunch quotes Schmidt, “I spend most of my time assuming the world is not ready for the technology revolution that will be happening to them soon.”

I’m touched to learn Schmidt might be thinking about my well-being while riding his Segway on the Google campus, but I suppose we need to put his comments in context of another hotly contested story about his company that broke on that same August day last week: Google and Verizon are nearing a deal that would end Net Neutrality, a system by which all sites, no matter their size, creator, or popularity had been treated the same.

Google has denied the agreement, but even without this deal, Net Neutrality has been in jeopardy since last April, when a federal appeals court said the FCC did not have the authority to prevent internet service providers from doing to the internet what cable companies have done to cable: charging more for premium channels, or creating tiers for sites. All data, in the words of one group opposed to the changes, will no longer be treated equally.

Some argue that’s not entirely a bad thing. But, all of this has more to do with money than it does with protecting my information overload, and it does nothing to answer the question: is the internet making me stupid?

The neuroscientist, Mike Merzenich, a co-founder of Posit Science, which makes software programs to keep the brain sharp, said that over the past two decades of the internet age, the measure of intelligence has actually risen.

In an interview with CNET in 2005, he explained the three ways we gain intelligence. We inherit what is called a genetic endowment. We also learn a set of basic skills and abilities that determine the speed of our cognitive function. And, finally, there are the: “hundreds of thousands of words and little episodes that we associate with one another in millions of millions of ways.”

And, this is how the internet is NOT making us stupid.

The massive amount of information given to us, even stories on Enrique Iglesias water skiing naked, help us form future associations.

But, can there be too many connections? Can we become saturated with information? Does it impair our ability to concentrate, prioritize, or even day dream?

When it comes to gathering too much information, presenting it without discretion, and pandering to what must be a clinically proven subconscious craving for anything related to abs, dream vacations, celebrity screw ups, or “secrets”, MSN is one-stop shopping. I get from it in one minute what I feel after an hour or two floating through cyberspace at large: intrigued, disappointed, engaged and ultimately, detached.

I’m one to complain. What would I do without the internet? It’s where I do most of my research; where I find coloring pages of butterflies for my kids on rainy days, where I learn that it’s going to be a rainy day, and where, every Sunday night at midnight, I post a new blog, doing my part to clog the internet and your mind, with yet another piece of information.

Technology has literally merged into our hands, and there is no distinction between the virtual and concrete. In fact, it’s when I’m not connected via computer or mobile device that I am most disoriented; wondering what is left of my sense of truth, respectability, proportion and inner balance. I don’t think it’s as simple as walking away or going low tech. We’ve moved irrevocably beyond that.

So, how does a person regain independent thought? How do we decide what is important and what is noise? I’d like to know the answer for myself—as a person, and as a participant in the phenomenon of blogging. But, I also want to understand it as a mother, who wonders how to explain this technologically driven world to her children.

I was thinking about this when, like a well-timed fortune cookie, a possible answer came to me in the form of a simple sentence.

A box of take-out was nowhere in sight, but like most stories these days, the internet was. Who else but the demigod Facebook could present this road to salvation?

Facebook had suggested a friend. I’d never met him and decided it was probably not a great idea to “friend him” but I did read his profile and was intrigued by a particular quotation.

I went to Google and found the source of it.

I called my library, but they did not have the book.

So, I went to Amazon, and downloaded a Kindle Application to my computer. And, for less than $2, and in fewer than thirty seconds, I had the entire book.

Finally, I was able to read Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man.

Yes, the same platform that had admonished me to tie a more perfect pony tail had enabled me to read the musings of a dead philosopher.

18th century German discourse is a stiff chaser to the fruity Cosmopolitans of the internet age, but I sucked it up and skipped to the right chapter. Letter IX. I know I’m no Goethe, and the internet is no French Revolution. This is entirely out of context, but so is life in the internet age. And, I’d rather turn to Friedrich “Fritz” Schiller than Ask Jeeves, on matters not related to Garfield.

What is an artist (and I’d argue we are all artists—in our work, in our creations, in our souls) to do when he becomes impatient, or forgets her ideals?

When the world seems corrupt, or driven by maxims that you do not agree with? When Lindsay Lohan, shark attacks, and video of a neighbor’s squirrel dancing the Macarena are elevated to the same status as the floods in Asia or a sibling’s good news?

Schiller suggests that these things wound the ego more than your intelligence. A good distinction, I suppose.

And, then, most fascinating of all, because it reminds us that it’s never been easy to live in the world and maintain your own compass, he says:

Live with your century, but be not its creature.

I need to quit my whining and get a backbone. There has always been the temptation to believe that what is new, or popular, or more encompassing is better.

And, there’s always been a need to step aside, and decide for oneself.


1 comment:

Tim Morrissey said...

It seems more than ever one must "sort things out" quickly, or be trapped in the quicksand of the internet. Great post, Sarah.