American Forum

@acarvin and Katheryn Montgomery
@aCarvin and Katheryn Montgomery

Are Media Making Us Dumber?” The question may sound like an oxymoron in an age where information is instantly accessible, but ubiquity of human knowledge does not always equal individual understanding. So how are media changing the way we learn and communicate important ideas?

I went to an American Forum last night to hear different perspectives on the issue and try to get a few answers.  Although consensus was difficult to reach in this panel discussion between academics and communications professionals, I think everyone agreed that people read a website differently than a book or newspaper article.

Without recapping the entire discussion (which is available online), one of the key themes of the night dealt with the ability to discern between the information which is valuable or junk. Unlike the process of reading a book, in which writers build support of its ideas gradually to create understanding, the internet does less to teach you to learn using reasoned arguments. At the very least, Google does nothing to discern between a scholarly paper and an anonymous ignorant individual – that is our responsibility.

Susan Jacoby advanced the idea that the internet is not an agnostic communications tool, but one McLuhan could successful identify like television as a tool designed to distract at every opportunity. And yet Andy Carvin was quick to distinguish distraction from an internet “designed for exploration and discovery,” appealing to our miserly nature as individuals to learn more about an idea.

Susan Jacoby
Susan Jacoby

Even as civic engagement has become empowered through the internet, legitimate concerns about the internet becoming the primary or only source of information pose a challenge to those who want to introduce new ideas. Jacoby was wise to point out that the prevalent opinion was to treat Screen-time (ie Televison, Computer) as the reward for one’s work (ie reading and learning), as Professor Katheryn Montgomery described in her own household by watching the nightly news with her daughter.  Susan Jacoby’s argument that Books are necessary, not just for their information but to teach us the reward of taking on difficult challenges, was met by a seemingly hostile audience of students embracing-technology.  And while my own experiences may be more the exception than the rule, I see each medium as complementary if not mutually exclusive sources of communication; I still read books and investigative journalism as much as I read a blog.

One of the best discussions of the night came not from the panel but from AU Grad Student Joshua Berg, who introduced the idea that the internet enchances our ability to build knowledge through the use of hyperlinks.  He suggested that because a website allows you to link related articles where it would not be possible to gain these insights before it will create not just the ultimate fact-checking resource for journalists but the ability to deepen our understanding of ideas.
Indeed the panel added that Wikipedia is becoming more academically reliable as it builds more reliable peer-review processes (including citations), and that the future of annotated journalism is happening right now.  So that even while many worry about the loss of newspapers, Josh Hatch was quick to point out that,

“There is nothing about writing something down in a newspaper that makes that information any better than putting it on a website.  It’s just delivery mechanisms.”

Hopefully while the media for communicating ideas may be changing, perhaps the same values that apply to good journalism and academic knowledge will apply in these new media.

The American Forum is available online as an MP3 file. Also worthwhile: Nicholas Carr’s essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the July/August 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.