Is the Internet making us stupid? Or just shallow?

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In my never-ending search for some bit of knowledge one day, during a mix-and-match of search engine terms while looking for classical writers’ views on death and dying, I stumbled onto what might have been an off-kilter New Age site, OM Times, or more likely, a parody of the genre. On the page titled “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Death,” I read,

“… light rays have qualities like wisdom, kindness, compassion and intelligence. This light makes visible what is invisible on earth, the Divine nature of all things….”

Loud guffaws broke the cool silence of the house and startled the cats sleeping on the dining room table nearby. Light rays have wisdom? Intelligence? I almost snorted tea through my nose I laughed so hard. It had to be a parody.

Codswallop almost always makes me laugh. At first. Then, as I perused the site more, I got worried at how much of it there was. A lot of effort put into a parody, it seemed. Do people actually believe this stuff? Or are all the New Age websites really satirical, like the Onion, making fun of popular beliefs, superstitions and fears?

Surely some of them must be poking us in the metaphorical ribs with a wink and a nudge. It’s hard to believe they’re serious when you check the other stories on this site. With articles headlined by lines like:

  • Are Your Loved Ones Sending You A Message From Beyond?
  • 10 Signs That You Were Born a Mystic
  • Top 10 Traits to Identify an Indigo
  • Numerology: September Forecast
  • The Science of Miracles
  • The 7 Most Common Messages from Spirits
  • My Life As an Earth Angel
  • Crystals For Reiki

You have to think they’re pulling your leg. And pulling it hard. None of this stuff is real; it’s all piffle; no one can take this malarkey seriously. Miracles? Numerology? Crystals? Just look at the opening of the story titled, “Travelling to the New Earth:”

There is a place beyond the Fifth Dimension where a new vision is taking shape, where mankind is getting a proverbial ‘do-over.’ This place is called ‘the New Earth.’ It exists in a dimensional space above the fifth dimension somewhere in the sixth and seventh dimensional areas accessible by meditation and through ‘stargates’ some of which are physical and some of which are energetic. Thus, many are able to visit the New Earth in meditation.
The New Earth is a high vibrational area where we all hope to live one day. It is free of fear and conflict. I am told it is the highest expression of Heaven on Earth or Shamballa.

I know, I know. I nearly laughed myself into a fit when I read that. There must be an app for creating winky New Age stories out there that lets you mix all the buzz words and goofy ideas together and come out with something that can be published here. This stuff makes Harry Potter read like a documentary.

Another site that’s surely a parody is Before Its News. It’s dubbed as “alternative news.” I expect that’s in the same way homeopathy – the apex of gullibility – is dubbed “alternative” medicine. As in nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Here are a few of its headlines:

  • Massive Mars Base Destroyed Sept 15/16
  • 3,000-Year-Old Bible Mystery Surfaces–What It Reveals Is Scary As Hell! The Biggest Catastrophe Ever–and Most Are Not Prepared! (Jaw Dropping Videos)
  • “1,700 Foot Tidal Wave? ‘Son, it’s time to pray…’”
  • Dragon’s Mummy Was Discovered In The Carpathian Mountains – Proof Dragon Actually Existed (Photos and Videos)
  • Old Mysterious Photos that will Haunt Your Dreams
  • Ancient Flying Machine 8 Soldiers Disappear Removing It From Afghan Cave
  • Alien Phenomenon Stuns Witnesses and Experts–Shocking Mystery In Sky Seen by Thousands–Government Cam Malfunctions At Same Time!
  • Sharia Law and Islam to Explode in US as Elite Fund it Using This as Their Secret Weapon…
  • Prince William ~ The Cloned Anti-Christ
  • Satanic Ritual Taking Over USA–You or Someone You Know Has Probably Done This Unaware–and You Will Be Shocked! (Videos)

The last story warns readers that the icebucket challenge for ALS is really a “satanic ritual:”

“I recently found out about the Ice Bucket Challenge and I really didn’t pay attention to it until a good friend mentioned that an ex-satanist friend said that this is the very same ritual he did when he was a satanist and was like a covenant contract with the devil.”
Then, after researching this further, the author of this article writes:
The enemy has come into America through the back door with what seems like a good work and a good cause but it is only on the surface. As you dig a little deeper and take the time to research, you will see that what I am saying is true. This is a type of sacrifice. It is a type of satanic sacrifice. All these human embryos are being sacrificed. A type of cannibalism is occurring because this craze and this phenomena is causing people to give into this one fund and neglecting other good and noble foundations that have have better causes and more moral ones. There is definitely a spirit behind this cause and it is not the Holy Spirit. God would never endorse such a fundraiser that supports using human embryos for research. It is abortion, plain and simple. To all those who have already participated, there is no condemnation, but there is a plea from the heart of God to pray, seek his face and ask forgiveness. I really didn’t want to post anything for or against this challenge.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at the writer’s incoherent, paranoid religious rambling. It has to be a joke, although I can’t get the punchline or why anyone would find it funny. Must be my own lack in the humour sensitivity department.

Here’s the opening of the piece on the destruction of the Mars base:

In this Sept 16th update from Linda Newkirk you will learn that our Saviour has now fulfilled His recent promise on Jan 11th to throw the NWO Satanists and their ET alliance down off of Mars and shut them out of the new inter-dimensional portal. From what Linda understands after hearing numerous conversations amongst some of those involved, a massive underground base on Mars with an area of three to four square miles has been destroyed on the night of Sept 15/16. Great numbers of humans, greys, reptiles and even some of the Annunaki are now in hell or outer darkness. Many of the Illuminati elite were in the base at the time. One of their reasons for being there was to sacrifice substantial numbers of children to Satan!

In this post Linda also recaps many Revelation 12 events leading up to this point in time that people may be better able to better understand these very complicated and supernatural works of the Lord. Be prepared for a lengthy read. Those who have been following Revelation 12 and are familiar with the recent updates/events may want to scroll down for the new update about the destruction of the Mars base.

This is a bizarre mix of supermarket tabloid nonsense, conspiracy theories, New Age bunk and religious codswallop. Some of these stories refer to “World Truth TV” as their source – which is another site full of outrageous, paranoid, and usually silly bunk. It clearly uses the word “truth” like North Korea calls itself the “people’s’ republic” – in jest. Take at look at some headlines from world “truthiness:”

  • Satanic Temple To Distribute Materials To School Children In Florida
  • The Baltic Sea Anomaly – 14,000 Year Fossilized UFO/USO Crash Site
  • Futuristic Floating City Could Soon Become A Reality?
  • ‘Genetically Modified Micro Humans’ To Be ‘Farmed’ For Drug Testing By 2017
  • Leaving Their Bodies, These People Saw Things Later Verified?
  • America’s Rise And Fall And The Mystery Of The Year Of The Shmita
  • 3,000 Year Old Bible Mystery Surfaces
  • Top 10 Things You Shouldn’t Know About The Ubiquitous “Illuminati”
  • Lluminati Occult Symbols At Sochi 2014 Olympic Opening Ceremony
  • Foods Scientifically Proven To Kill Cancer

Like the previous site, they’re all risible.

But you should notice some things most of these sites  have in common: paranoia (about the government, and mysterious occult organizations); religious (specifically literalist Christian) fervour; Biblical quotes (usually one particular translation of the Bible, not the actual Bible) to justify wild claims; uses of words like proven, science and reality to describe fantasy or fiction; so-called “self-help” articles about food, do-it-yourself medical cures and diets with no medical basis; and scientific-looking articles that are actually pseudoscience based on opinion, superstition or simply anecdote.

Now in a reasoned society, one in which people used their grey matter to actually think about these things, to assess the logic of the claims, this sort of content would simply pass as either satirical or crazy. Crazy to the point where you wonder if the writers suffer from sever psychological problems. People who should spend more time in rubber rooms than in front of computers. This stuff is really that insane. So it must be a parody, right?

But I sometimes get an uneasy feeling, a scratchy foreboding that these aren’t satires. Some people – authors and audience – might actually believe this stuff. That the internet is making us crazy.

That leads to the wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night fear there are people whose critical thinking faculties are so dead or dying that they cannot tell the difference between bunk and fact, between pseudoscience and science, between imagination and empirical evidence. They cannot discern this is claptrap because they no longer can identify the border between fantasy and reality.

The ShallowsIs the internet doing this to us? Is the internet making us stupid? Or just lazy and shallow? Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows) posed this question in an article in Atlantic Magazine, back in 2008. He wrote:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Reviewing Carr’s subsequent book in the New York Times, Jonah Leher wrote,

…Carr argues that we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet. As Carr first observed in his much discussed 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” the mere existence of the online world has made it much harder (at least for him) to engage with difficult texts and complex ideas. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” Carr writes, with typical eloquence. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

And a review on NPR noted:

The Shallows is a rebuttal to those who unquestioningly accept a life in which information is unlimited, easily accessed but fractured and unmoored from context, and where people are constantly online and multitasking among e-mail, Facebook and websites. Extrapolating from the sagacity of Western philosophers like Plato and Marshall McLuhan and guided by recent, pertinent discoveries in neuroscience, Carr argues that the Internet physically “rewires” our brain to where we end up acting like computers — avaricious gobblers of information –- and our grip on what it means to be human slackens.

Is Carr right that the technology is driving us, rather than the other way around? I believe so, based on both my research and my own observations. Carr quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “Things are in the saddle / and ride mankind.” *

(Here’s a good, albeit lengthy, overview of Carr’s book on A Puff of Absurdity)

A story in Psychology Today noted that the internet is changing the way we think and may actually be rewiring our brains:

Humans today are like most smartphones and tablets – their ability to solve problems depends not on the knowledge they can store but on their capacity to connect to a place where they can retrieve the answer to find a solution. This is what some have labelled the “hyper-link” economy… the only knowledge we need to have is the knowledge of where to find stuff.

The internet has made many of us us lazy simply because of the ease by which we can access content. Some people easily accept what they read or see as real without doing any work to confirm or deny it, or to parse it through the normal filters of reason and logic. That’s why people still buy into scams and hoaxes, like emails where Microsoft promises to send you money for sharing. A simple search for urban legends, or a visit to Snopes.com will debunk it for anyone who makes the effort.

But you need to make the effort for the effect to happen. There is no filter on the internet that you can use to, say, just get factual information, shorn of opinions; no way to get Google to produce science not pseudoscience; no way to separate political data from political rants. No way to rank content by validity.

All online content appears amorphous; a cloud in which all content is given equal value. What pops up in the first page is more likely to be what people chose, instead of spending time examining several pages to discover which, if any, are actually relevant to the searcher’s goals, which may contain fact as opposed to fiction (like the difference between the science behind vaccinations and the superstition-fueled, scare-tactic-pseudoscience of the anti-vaxxer movement).

An Australian study into the effect of the internet on thinking said it boldly:

Is the internet making us stupid? That’s the question researchers from Wellington’s Victoria University asked in a study on people’s reading behaviour.
And the answer is: yes.
We might have more access to information than ever before, but reading things online actually has a negative impact on people’s cognition.
Associate professor Val Hooper and master’s student Channa Herath’s analysis of online and offline reading behaviour found that online reading generally does not have a positive impact on people’s cognition.
Concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall rates when engaging with online material were all much lower than traditional text.

We appear to be losing the skills of being critical, of analyzing, even of thinking in a logical manner through the convenience of the internet. Because we’re humans, and intrinsically inclined to comfort, we tend to gravitate to the content that already agrees with out preconceptions rather than that which challenges them. We often don’t put our brains in gear when we start surfing: we just go with the flow we already expect.

A recent story on the BBC suggests that as we lose these crucial skills, paradoxically we think we’re getting smarter:

Psychologists have shown that we are more likely to be blind to our own failings than perhaps we realise. This could explain why some incompetent people are so annoying, and also inject a healthy dose of humility into our own sense of self-regard.

…research has shown that this “unskilled and unaware of it” effect holds in real-life situations, not just in abstract laboratory tests. For example, hunters who know the least about firearms also have the most inaccurate view of their firearm knowledge, and doctors with the worst patient-interviewing skills are the least likely to recognise their inadequacies.

What has become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect is an example of what psychologists call metacognition – thinking about thinking. It’s also something that should give us all pause for thought. The effect might just explain the apparently baffling self belief of some of your friends and colleagues.

Which means we can’t see our own ignorance any more than we can see our own noses. Samuel Greengard, in an article titled, “Are We Losing Our Ability to Think Critically?” wrote:

Although there’s little debate that computer technology complements—and often enhances—the human mind in the quest to store information and process an ever-growing tangle of bits and bytes, there’s increasing concern that the same technology is changing the way we approach complex problems and conundrums, and making it more difficult to really think.
“We’re exposed to [greater amounts of] poor yet charismatic thinking, the fads of intellectual fashion, opinion, and mere assertion,” says (Adrian) West. “The wealth of communications and information can easily overwhelm our reasoning abilities.” What’s more, it’s ironic that ever-growing piles of data and information do not equate to greater knowledge and better decision-making. What’s remarkable, West says, is just “how little this has affected the quality of our thinking.”
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, literary reading declined 10 percentage points from 1982 to 2002 and the rate of decline is accelerating. Many, including Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles, believe that a greater focus on visual media exacts a toll. “A drop-off in reading has possibly contributed to a decline in critical thinking,” she says. “There is a greater emphasis on real-time media and multitasking rather than focusing on a single thing.”

Losing a skill doesn’t necessarily make one stupid. It depends on how often the skill is used and for what purpose. How many adults under 50 can add up columns of numbers without a calculator? How many adults under 30 can write out a page in longhand? How many of them can spell all the words correctly? They may have other, compensatory skills. Just like I can’t milk a cow or plow a straight furrow, but I can drive to a store and shop for milk and veggies.

But losing a skill in thinking is dangerous.

Just judging by the number of people who comment on some of these sites, subscribe to their feeds, or share their content on Facebook, it’s clear many people cannot identify the obvious craziness of cults, New Age nonsense, creationism, or homeopathy and mistake them for having substance.

Some cannot discern the difference between a personal political agenda spewed vituperatively on a blog and a considered political opinion. Some cannot tell the difference between historical fact and historical fantasy, between observation and paranoia, or between science and pseudoscience. Their definition of “truth” becomes elastic: based on opinion and anecdote – or even outright fiction – rather than on fact or evidence (an experience we have even encountered locally).

This is not by any means new: we can look through history and see cults, madness, political manipulation and pseudoscience. What has changed is the technology by which these are spread: the internet makes it remarkably easy to present content to a wide audience. What the technology doesn’t do it vet that content for reliability. There is no way to identify the fantasy from the reality once you lose your ability to think critically about that content.

The breadth of content online may be breathtaking, but the depth isn’t.

~~~~~

* For a later post, I’ll look at the related book, What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly. “It suggests that technology as a whole is not just a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies.”

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