does new social media make us stupid?

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The sad fact is that with the deluge of information today, the long form of article writing is giving way to shorter attention spans — the 2 second sound bite, the tweet, the quip, the blip, the like, the share, the plus, the buzz of knats in heat. The long form will never die as there will always be people who actually enjoy thinking, but if you want to grow and gain attention to your blog, you’d better master the art of streaming data bits.

If you are already an established writer with a reputation and following then this doesn’t pertain to you. But if you are, like me, just starting out, then just writing 2000 word posts will require that you wait until the next ice age to gain traction. Most readers today don’t want to think too deeply. That’s tiring, it’s work, and takes real effort.

What we want is lots of spaces and distractions, little bits of a story that give us the feeling we have eaten something when we have only tasted it. Pictures and videos are great for that because we don’t have to process too much thought or language, we can just react viscerally with a “cool!” or “awesome!” and “I’m going to share that!”, and we feel satisfied we have engaged in the social mainstream. We have connected. Sip some more latte.

The problem with hyper-connections at hyper-warped speeds is that we are compressing our thoughts into smaller and smaller bits of information. Unfortunately, deep thought and analysis requires not just millions of bits of digital information, but the ordering of that information into patterns that make sense, that contain logic, that tell a story or argue a point.

English: Logo for the Addicted to Social Media...

English: Logo for the Addicted to Social Media Blog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s where the work comes in, which is where most people go out. Why write a 2000 word post that really digs down into the bowels of a subject, that hammers out a nugget of genuine truth, when we can just hit the “share” button and be done with it? Isn’t the point of life to make everything easier? Aren’t we busy enough? Haven’t I made enough of a social contribution by clicking a few “likes” and “tweets” and “google+’s” today?

Well the reality may be that we aren’t doing enough. New social media technology, by making it so easy to “push-button” socialize in 2 second quips and bytes, may be having a detrimental effect on our thinking and process of engagement that weakens the social fabric. Democracy demands of us that we be genuinely informed and intimately engaged, and hitting “like” and “tweet” buttons doesn’t cut it.

This may be a reason why America is sliding into Fascist mediocrity. All the cool bells and whistles of new social media technology makes us all feel so engaged and connected, when in reality it may be making us more and more irrelevant to social change. We may be losing our grip. We don’t need to study and tale concrete actions on the issues when “sharing” them makes us feel productive and engaged.

The other day I was watching a very intelligent guy share fascinating post after post on google+. I went to read some of the articles and they were most interesting. But after awhile I began to wonder just what he was accomplishing by posting link after link to these articles.

What’s the point if this somewhat random stream will be lost in the digital ether in another few minutes? And even if they are all on a similar topic, isn’t it necessary to do some work to point out the relevancy of these articles to each other and to draw analogies and differences? To make a point? To argue something? To pull it all together? Is that old school?

Just sharing stuff doesn’t make us sufficiently engaged. It creates the illusion of being connected and engaged when we are mostly just shuffling the same bits and bytes of information around in “circles”. Pushing a like button is not the same as joining a protest. Tweeting is not the same as voting in your best interests and the best interests of the country. Sharing is not the same as writing members of congress and telling them to change their actions.

Retweeting a comment on a post about Internet Marketing is not the same as starting your own Internet marketing business. Many people today seem to think it’s the same, which it’s not unless you’re in the social media niche, in which case the more you like and tweet and share and write about what you’re doing the more popular you become.

But there are those academic geniuses who can’t wait to trot out all sorts of ridiculous tests to assure us new social media makes us smarter, not dumber. What they fail to see is that social media, like television before it, is a dumbing down process for the majority of people who use it. For the majority of children, is television a positive or negative influence on their lives and study habits? The kids I know who become readers far outpace their TV loving peers in literacy, analytical thinking and intellectual curiosity.

Let’s look at a weak counterargument. Greg Stevens, in his article titled NO, DOOFUS: THE INTERNET ISN’T MAKING YOU STUPID, and the brilliant academics he cites are here to tell you that playing video games and retweeting stuff actually make you smarter, especially, it seems, when you use tests that evaluate one’s ability to play computer games and retweet stuff.

The evidence for this general premise is laughable. It reminds me of the scientists who can’t stop trying to show that vitamins and natural health supplements aren’t really good for you, and may in fact be harmful.

So here’s what the biased, corrupt scientists do to smear “natural medicine”. Of course it’s important for you to understand that only a “drug” produced by a pharmaceutical company can “treat”, “cure” or “prevent” any disease. That’s the law as mandated by the FDA. It is illegal to claim that any natural substance can heal, treat or cure a disease even if it can, because the government wants pharmaceutical companies to have a monopoly on healthcare. They don’t want competition from natural medicine.

So they set out to debunk, say, vitamin C. Now anyone who knows anything about health knows that vitamins, minerals and other chemicals in the body work synergistically, not in isolation. That’s how nature and your body work. So what do the debunkers do? Set up a study in which they either give a large dose of a single vitamin to people to measure the health effects over a short period of time, or give them too small a dose to make any difference.

Because chemicals are designed by nature to work synergistically, giving single doses of vitamin C over large periods of time without anything else can actually be harmful. It is not wise to take large quantities of single supplements over long periods of time, and I have never seen anyone in the alternative health field recommend such an inane practice. Rather, you should include as much variety and as many catalyzing cofactors as possible to mimic a healthy diet found in nature.

So of course, the debunkers and FUDsters set up their pseudo-scientific experiments with exactly this kind of biased agenda. “Vitamin C Potentially Dangerous!” scream the headlines. “Vitamin C Causes Cancer!” screams another. Just giving large quantities of vitamin C over long periods of time proves nothing about its efficacy except to reaffirm what common sense has already told us; you shouldn’t just give people large amounts of vitamin C over long periods of time.

So when they do what will obviously show vitamin C in the worst possible light they can’t wait to publish their “scientific” results to the world. That doesn’t mean vitamin C isn’t good for you, it just means the scientists have found a way to give you that substance in a way that isn’t necessarily good for you.

The studies are completely bogus. They tell you nothing. Vitamin C is tremendously healthy when taken properly with the thousands of other phytonutrients it was designed to by taken with. Don’t tell that to the debunkers, who will work until the end of time trying to demonstrate that the only things you should take are pharmaceutical drugs. Go for it.

Back to Greg Stevens, who wants you to know that science can tell us all the answers about human intelligence we need to know. Things like intuition, common sense, philosophical reason and literary interpretation — those are for morons. Greg Stevens has science on his side, and he’s carrying a big stick so stand back.

A claim like “the internet is making people stupid” is not a matter of opinion. You don’t determine its veracity by consulting your feelings, asking a friend for his life story, or constructing a compelling narrative. It is a science question: its truth will be revealed by research.

So when you’re neighbor comes over to your house and says you’re stupid for letting your son sneak out of the house and tryst with his daughter, you can’t consult such absurd things as “feelings” or “intuition” or “experience” to “construct[] a compelling narrative” out of reason and logic. Nope, that’s for idiots. Scientific studies have the last word when it comes to evaluating things like intelligence.

There’s a problem with the arrogant, myopic idea that science will always have the final, most comprehensive, instructive word about something as complex and mysterious as intelligence. It’s never been demonstrated to any satisfactory degree, and it isn’t possible. We’ve been using IQ tests for decades to tell who is smart and who stupid. The IQ test only measures an exeedingly narrow range of abilities we call intelligence.

I never saw an IQ test that could tell me who would be the next Michael Jordan or Beethoven or Shakespeare. And I never saw an IQ test that could tell me who would get along best with his peers, or who would motivate others and be the best leader, or who would come up with new paradigms for quantum physics or who would murder his father. They don’t tell me who will be the next chess champion or who can fly an airplane in an emergency. They don’t tell me who will stop to help a homeless person or drive a wounded bird to the vet.

They don’t really tell you all that much, unless you’re really just interested in making money and lots of “stuff” so our “consumer society” can be “wealthier” than other consumer, money-obsessed cultures striving to be as stressed out, unhealthy and unhappy as we are.

So here’s one of the tests the academic geniuses developed to prove that the Internet makes you smarter, not more stupid, from Greg Stevens’ not altogether intelligent article.

. . . let’s consider one of the actual tests. In the “number detection” test, you are given a page that is covered in digits presented in two different fonts in random order and combinations (e.g. 1 2 1 6 5 5 3 6 2). A person is given a target set of numbers in a particular font to look for (e.g., 1 2 3 4 5 6), and he is given 60 seconds to circle all numbers on the page that match an item, both font and number, in the target set.

Credit is given for each correct number circled, and the maximum possible score is 51. This test is specifically designed to score visual attention:

Ah, the old “visual attention” test! Find the one narrow, virtually irrelevant thing wasting time on the Internet helps you do better than reading Shakespeare and test for it! Then when the Internet junkies score 2% higher than the guys who read Shakespeare, we know they are smarter! It’s like measuring the fast twitch muscle on people who play video games and declaring them smarter than guys who program computers because they can twitch their thumbs 2% faster in response to an approaching virtual demon.

Give me a fucking break. Of course Greg Stevens is quick to tell you that the above test “. . . is just one of the tests that goes into establishing a person’s overall score for the “Attention” component of the four PASS skills”. So here’s all 4 “skills” these geniuses want you to know encompass our scientific understanding of intelligence:  ”planning, attention, simultaneous processing, and successive processing.”

Are you seeing the problem here? What happened to other forms of intelligence, the really important ones that make life as humans worth living, like: naturalistic, existential, moral, leadership, creative and artistic, inter and intrapersonal, stuff that scientists don’t have a clue how to accurately measure?

How does someone’s ability to “simultaneously” or “successively” process information tell me if he has a grasp on who should be the next president of the US? Can these tests tell me whether or not it was a good decision to prosecute the war in Iraq? If we should allow the Fed to print more money? If people like Greg Stevens should be allowed to publish articles that pass as “scientific”?

No, they don’t. These “intelligence” tests are moronic attempts by clueless academics who have too much time on their hands and can’t figure out what to do with it. Or they need to figure out clever ways to get more grant money from the government so they pretend to do something worthwhile when they are twiddling their proverbial sticks and wasting taxpayer money.

One can just as easily trot out some “scientific” stuff to claim the opposite, so it would seem that it is precisely intuition and common sense and experience and creative thinking that we should be using here. Kristen Bright has reason to believe that,

Comprehension is Diminished by Internet Use
In one university experiment, half a classroom was allowed use the web while listening to a lecture while the other half had to shut down their computers. Subsequently, when tested on the lecture topic, those who were allowed to use the web tested much lower than those who did not rely on the internet. Other experiments showed that the more information and links shown on a computer screen while reading, the less likely we are to remember what has been seen; i.e. reading comprehension failure.

Less Creativity and Productiveness
A disturbing picture emerges as you contemplate the value of man/woman made thought. The intricate value of the mind is of much more worthwhile than just the ability to speed-read on the web. People reading internet content load with links are comprehending less than when reading the printed word. Those who watch presentations and other multimedia on the net, remember much less than if they were in sedate atmosphere comfortably reading, oh say, an actual book! Too much juggling leads to less productiveness and creativity

Divided Attention Reduces Critical Thinking
The general thread of these many disabilities is the dividing of our attention in so many directions. Everything about who we are as individuals is dependent upon our abilities to concentrate and focus our minds through our own in depth independent thinking outside the scope of the internet. Only after closely paying attention to new information, can we then associate it with something already meaningful to our already established memories. This is critical to complex thinking.

I agree with Stevens’ conclusion that the Internet and social media don’t make us stupid, but that’s not really the point. It’s how we have adapted their use as a society that it important.  Social media is just a tool for communication and information processing. It’s not the tool itself that needs analysis but our obsessive preoccupation with it due to social norms and customs to the exclusion of traditional forms of learning like reading.

Again, the brightest kids I know have parents who strictly limit the amount of time they can watch TV, and teach them to become lovers of reading. Why? Because reading is better able to develop their intellect than watching TV. Similarly, actually reading articles and philosophy and novels and carefully analyzing them is a superior form of information processing and produces more intelligent beings than running at breakneck speed through the Internet liking and tweeting everything in sight.

Science can measure a tiny sliver of intelligence, and that’s it. I’m not against the Internet or social media. I love the Internet and think it’s the greatest invention since the computer. But that doesn’t mean it can’t have deleterious effects and be abused by an entire culture that confuses social buzz with intellectual development.

The fact that America is still on the verge of electing a president from the same political bed of intelligence that gave us George W. Bush is a stunning testament to a profound pathology gripping the country. The social synapses aren’t firing properly. They are in disarray, and I don’t see “new social media” doing much to help.

 

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