Why are we getting dumber?

14 April 2006

It's a question that Nicholas Carr poses in the comments thread to his piece on lazy thinking and the Internet, itself prompted by Andrew Orlowski's piece on the Guardian taking aim at one of his favourite targets: Wikipedia. But is dumbness actually on the increase? And is that dumbness evenly distributed? I'd say no to both.

It's easy to look at the Internet and claim all this bite-sized information is turning us into the intellectual equivalents of ADD-afflicted toddlers stoked up on tartrazine and Sunny D. But that is maybe more a sign of wishing for the stability of the, mostly mythical, good old days.

I can agree with Carr that it feels as though the Internet is dumbing us down. Never before have so many people been able to get poorly thought-out arguments and prejudice far beyond the bounds of the bar-room. And that, in reality, is the only change. In the same way that, through phishing and similar tactics, the Internet puts con artists in direct contact with an unprecendented number of easy marks, thoughts that barely qualify for the term soak through into homes as easily as material that has at least been through a vaguely critical edit. When some of those bizarre pseudo-theories end up in student theses, that is nothing more than collateral damage.

The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence for people being dumber or less able to concentrate now than in the past. In the past, there were just fewer choices on what you could spend your time on. Did it mean that people spent their time in the pub discussing the finer points of deconstructionism. Not one bit. It was, for the most part, the same diet of prejudice and assumption that now coarses through gigabit fibre-optic links. I doubt that the ratio of intelligent thought to dumbness is no greater now than 10, 50, 100 years ago. It's just a lot more obvious. And it is, unfortunately, fashionable to be dumb at the moment.

What happened to James Surowiecki's Wisdom of Crowds demonstrates the power of lazy analysis and the fetish for easy factoids. I started reading the book expecting to hate it, and only read it because it was painfully obvious that many of the people who so often think they quote from it had clearly never touched a copy.

Surowiecki's central point - made rather long-windedly - is that diversity of thought is A Good Thing, not that crowds always give you the right answers. You cannot have just any old crowd: it has to be a diverse crowd. Without diversity, groupthink takes over. If you were to read the first few chapters - or just the analysis of those chapters - you could come away thinking that the answer to everything lay in decisions made by crowds. From there, it's not too big a leap to demand that the old elites give way to the crowd, "because the crowd knows best". Luckily, this last commonly held opinion is little more than fashion. And will get swept out of the way by the next wave of popularity. The people doing the thinking will just be getting on with that, quietly.