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Editor's Note: Does the Internet Make People Stupid?

Dec 13, 2008, 00:02 (9 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

I've read a number of essays recently that claim that the modern information society makes people stupid. The print publication industry is in decline, so people are reading fewer printed books, magazines, and newspapers. These are replaced by the intellectual junk food of the Web and television. The people who write these pieces are passionate, articulate, refer to all kinds of studies, quote all kinds of people, and I suspect get paid well to write them. But it's all for naught because it's hooey.

If anything we have too much information at our fingertips. Online publishing is replacing print publishing. Sorting it all out and knowing what to believe becomes a larger problem than gathering the information in the first place. To give a few small examples, in the past few weeks I was able to research these things online:

  • Some wonderful fence and gate designs
  • How to fix some scary bad plumbing
  • Audio hardware that is both good-quality and supported in Linux
  • A number of definitions of words
  • Some awesomely great airfares
  • Some great video editing howtos
And so on...just like most of us do when we want to know something. In the olden days I would have made several trips to the public library and the bookstore. I love libraries and bookstores. But I don't visit them as much as I used to.

Now I can't make any grand claims about society going to heck in a handbasket, and anyway I don't think it is, but I do have one recent incident to illustrate how having all this wonderful access to information doesn't replace being able to think things through. I think that recognizing consequences is one of the most important abilities to develop. Ignoring consequences, especially subtle ones, create all kinds of problems. Sure, we learn not to touch hot stoves in a hurry, but most of life's lessons are not that immediate.

As Plain As The Air That We Breathe

Out here in the sticks it's woodstove land. People love their wood heat. It's dirty, it's more expensive than gas or oil, and as two-thirds of the homes in my county are thirty-year old trailers just begging to go up in flames, they're very hazardous.

Some friends put up their shiny new dream home last year, and even though it is a modern house with all the bells and whistles, their main heat source is a mondo wood stove. They build dirty smudge fires that stink up the neighborhood, and it aggravates their son's asthma. It turns the main room into a sauna and the bedrooms freeze. So one day I asked why, since it's cost-effective to put in solar on new construction, didn't they do that? Is this not 2008, well into the new millennium? I got the blankest look in reply. Even though they've been planning this house down to the last detail for years it never occurred to them to go high-tech on heating and cooling, or to look at alternatives to wood heat. Now they're wishing they had.

Another odd thing they did (to me it was odd, that is) is site their home to ingeniously block out most of their view. If they had oriented it a little differently they would have had splendid mountain views to enjoy all day long. Instead they have splendid views of their ratty ancestral barn. Maybe they prefer that, I don't know. At any rate if they ever sell their home they won't get full value.

I imagine that most of us have had to deal with this sort of lack of foresight in our tech careers; the bosses who penny-pinch up front at a great long-term cost, refusal to investigate modern technologies, customers who stick to what they know and don't want to hear about changing anything, and so on. I reckon we've all given in to impulse too often for comfort. It's a human thing, and I don't have any brilliant solutions to offer. Just the observation that as always when dealing with humans, people skills seem to be more important than technical skills.