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Stars in the Net sky

By Chris Berg - posted Friday, 28 December 2007

Is the Internet making us stupid? That, at least, is the conclusion of Doris Lessing, this year's winner of the Nobel prize for literature. In her acceptance speech, she argued that our newfound love of trivial inanities on the Internet was replacing our previous appreciation of learning, education and literature.

It would be easy to dismiss Lessing's arguments by claiming that she is unfamiliar with the possibilities of technology, and that she is merely defending her favourite medium, the book.

But Lessing is not alone in her view. She joins a large group of pessimists who are instinctively sceptical about technological progress and cultural change. This deeply conservative pessimism is an unfortunate attribute of modern political and social debate.


Another recent example of cultural pessimism is provided by Internet entrepreneur Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of the Amateur. In it, Keen argues in a similarly unhappy tone that the Internet has allowed non-professionals to drown out high-quality culture with rubbish.

Certainly, there are some remarkably stupid things on the Internet. There are also some disgusting things, pointless things, and obscene things. Hours can be wasted on Facebook or YouTube or in the virtual reality world of Second Life. Wikipedia has lists of fictional detective teams, lists of historic fires, and lists of lists - all of which promise the dedicated procrastinator many opportunities for distraction.

But while the traditional book may now have to compete with the lavish offerings of the Internet, Lessing's glumness is hardly justified. For our intellectual life, the widespread adoption of the Internet has been unambiguously positive.

It is hard to overestimate the educational advantages of super-abundant information, particularly when we compare it to the information scarcity that has characterised most of human history.

One famous academic paper showed that each edition of The New York Times contained more information than an individual in the 17th century was likely to come across in their lifetime.

And the variety of information now instantly available on our computer screen makes what was available to us even 20 years ago seem like a short blurb on the back of a book.


While Lessing may fear the effects of substituting reading books for online activities like blogging, a number of studies have shown that students are now far more comfortable writing than their predecessors.

Remember all those fatalistic cries that the practice of shortening and abbreviating words for text messages would irreparably damage young people's writing skills? This was yet another misguided prediction of cultural doom. It appears that most students are easily able to tell what style of writing is appropriate for school work.

If young people do have problems reading and writing, it isn't the Internet or mobiles that are at fault, but the education system.

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First published in The Age on December 16, 2007.

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About the Author

Chris Berg is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review.

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