17 May 2009

The Information Age

In my previous post, my qualified statement that sometimes I love the Internet - and sometimes I don’t - led to the obvious comment from LB: “And why don’t you love the Internet?”  I started to reply in the comments section, but my response got so long, I turned it into another post (this one).

Overall, the Internet is a great thing, of course.  In terms of boosting human productivity it is of immeasurable value, and it is (so far) a vast forum of those hallmarks of liberty: free speech and free commerce.  Just for me personally it has revolutionized the way I do my job (as an electrical engineer), and obviously I would not be publishing this blog post were it not for the Internet.  Understand, too, that my comment was a little bit offhand, and I wouldn’t “wish the Internet away” even if that were possible.

Nevertheless, there are a few things that temper my complete enthusiasm for the medium.

Perhaps my most prominent complaint is that I think the Internet should almost never be used for educational research until maybe college.  (When I say "should not," I naturally do not mean there should be laws or rules against it; I mean that teachers should consider it to be largely detrimental to their students' development.)  The immediacy that made it possible for me to discover the painting Amity in less than four minutes is the very thing that subverts a developing conceptual faculty.  Why?  Because the information on the Internet is largely flat, hierarchically.  

For instance, suppose a typical high-school student today had to do a report on the first scene of Wagner's Ring cycle.  (Forgive the contrived example, which I concocted more or less randomly from a book that happened to be near me.)  The student would probably “Google” the text "first scene of wagner's ring" and out would pop dozens of pre-digested summaries.  Ten minutes later, he would be finished with his report and move on to something else, like playing video games or watching MTV.  

In contrast, my student (if I had any students) would be forbidden to use the Internet.  Thus, he would have to look up Wagner in an encyclopedia, where he would discover that the Ring is actually a four-opera behemoth, the first of which is called Das Rheingold.  He would then have to jot this information down, go to the library, find the section on the arts and music, and find a volume on operas.  In this book, the student would have to peruse the table of contents to see how the volume is arranged; he would see that there is a section on Wagner, a sub-section on Der Ring Des Nibelungen (which he would, in an exclamatory “aha!” moment, deduce must be the full name of the Ring), and a sub-sub-section on Das Rheingold.  This would lead him to flip to page 490, where he could read about the opening scene and decide what was relevant for his report.  Obviously, the latter experience would be incalculably richer for the student than the former.  He would make far more connections, would perhaps be drawn by curiosity to explore more paths along the way, and above all, would see how his narrow topic fits into the larger picture.  In short, he would have accumulated knowledge systematically and hierarchically

But there’s more.  Add to this the weight of a book that is held in one’s hand; the indescribably solid scent of age and wisdom that wafts toward one’s nostrils from an old hardcover that is cracked open; the gentle woosh and pop as one’s caressing finger slides along each sheet to reveal the next page; and the delicious exhaustion of emerging from a sustained mental effort, having been immersed without interruption in a magnificent volume that for all its wonder will not give of itself passively, but will open itself to - and bear fruit within - only an active mind.  Contrast this with Internet “research”: the contextless information that is plucked from a vast cauldron of disconnected facts by a search engine, and handed to a student with almost no effort on his part, seems a poor substitute for education indeed.

Another problem I have with the Internet - well, it’s more a product of the Information Age than of the Internet per se - is the plummeting quality of discourse, particularly in email correspondence.  The ease and convenience of writing a note today seems to be in inverse proportion to the need to punctuate, capitalize and spell correctly, or use proper grammar.  

This, incidentally, is not some sort of snotty, elitist position on my part.  (I was once accused of “insensitivity to the disadvantaged” when I complained about grammatical errors.)  Some of the worst culprits are the high-level managers that I’ve worked with.  I am convinced that it is not a matter of intelligence, but of laziness.  I can understand mistakes; try as I might to avoid them, I occasionally make spelling or grammatical errors myself.  But the deliberate, fashionable carelessness of perpetually “texting” teenagers and the Blackberry jet set is alarming to me.  I fear for the preservation of the English language.

Finally, no why-I-don’t-love-the-Internet list would be complete without mentioning the viruses, spyware, adware, etc. that can become a supreme nuisance.  A few weeks ago, my computer at work was assailed by a virus despite my having up-to-date anti-virus software.  It’s hard to stomach such pointless malice.

Now, I want it to be understood that these items do not discourage me from using the Internet or marveling at the technology; it simply makes me wary.  I recognize that my position is a little bit ridiculous - like disliking automobiles because there exist car thieves.  My reservations about the Internet are really only a specific case of a more general principle: to rigorously bear in mind the context of a tool, and to continuously remind oneself of the benefits and perils.  Really, this all comes down to the old maxim that my father impressed upon me in his workshop when I was a child: respect a tool, and use it only for the purpose for which it was intended.  The table saw that saves me physical labor can cut my hand off.  The spell-checker that automatically corrects errors in my paper can deteriorate my ability to spell words myself.  None of the disadvantages that I have listed are necessary aspects of the Internet and all (except maybe the malicious viruses) are in the complete control of the users.


Amy said...

I started to leave a comment, but it turned into this post.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks, Amy! I left a comment after your post.