The New York Times offers  this piece by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who argues that, contrary to the skeptics, wringing our hands about new communications technology is really a bit silly. Google does not make us stupid. The internet, email, and Twitter do not fragment our attention spans. In fact, these new ways of accessing and managing information have led to a proliferation of discoveries and advances in the sciences as well as the humanities. He concludes with this remarkable sentence:

Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

Well, it’s a comfort knowing that we are so smart. But isn’t is at least puzzling that many of the problems we face today, from the oil spill in the Gulf, to global warming, from obesity, to pollution, are the result of us “smart” people doing dumb things?

Although, Pinker might object, it seems the poet might offer some insight into this conundrum. Here is T.S. Eliot from Choruses from “The Rock.”

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

A little farther, we read this:

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.

Perhaps we’re not as smart as Pinker thinks. If not, the first step is to admit our ignorance. To recognize limits to our knowledge and thereby to admit of limits to our ambitions. We will thrive not by dominating our surroundings but by stewarding well this creation of which we are but a part. The way to wisdom passes through the low gate of humility and is fully realized only in the context of healthy communities.

h/t Jason Peters

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  1. The dumb thing that supposedly “smart” people do is to allow a minority (usually those who have control of the money) to dominate us and determine the choices available. The internet works to make us aware of the wider choices available and allows us to more easily explore the merit of those choices.

  2. It is interesting that Pinker consigns intellectual depth and critical thought to universities, as though these are the only places that such habits can be acquired. It is of course possible to learn to think critically outside of the university, and the internet can help with that, but only if the basic habits of mind (such as sustained attention and active reading) are already in place. From what I have seen, the existence of both the internet and modern advertising makes it very difficult to acquire these skills, and thus tends to make their acquisition the realm of specialized institutions. That the internet has not extinguished critical reflection is obvious; that it has pushed it into its own specialized corner is a strike against Pinker’s argument.

    It may also be worth noting that the empirical evidence that Pinker marshals mostly deals with people who did not grow up with the internet (i.e. those of us over 25 or so). I wonder what will happen when today’s crop of high school students (many of whom have not known a time when myspace didn’t exist) graduate.

  3. ‘But isn’t is at least puzzling that many of the problems we face today, from the oil spill in the Gulf, to global warming, from obesity, to pollution, are the result of us “smart” people doing dumb things?’

    So what do this, or the Eliot quote, have to do with the Internet again?

  4. From Neil Postman:”

    “My own answer to the question concerning access to information is that, at least for now, the speed, volume, and variety of available information serve as a distraction and a moral deficit; we are deluded into thinking that the serious social problems of our time would be solved if only we had more information, and still more information. But I hope I need not tell you that if children are starving in the world, and many are, it is not because we have insufficient information. If crime is rampant in the streets, it is not because we have insufficient information. If children are abused and women battered, that, too, has nothing to do with insufficient information.”

  5. I’m not sure how the reasonable concerns raised by someone like Nicholas Carr for example quite amounts to a “moral panic,” but I suppose such concerns are more easily dismissed if they are characterized as the ravings of misguided Cassandras. What is more puzzling is the seemingly obligatory reference to past technological changes which we have weathered without an ensuing collapse of civilization. I’m not quite sure what this is supposed to prove. The point seems to be that technological change is inevitable and inexorable, it won’t kill us all, so best not make things difficult by raising serious questions about the wisest and best uses of technology. Oh, and don’t worry you won’t miss what is being lost after we’ve all forgotten we lost it in the first place.

    Admittedly with each new technology something is lost and, if we are fortunate, something is gained. Is it too much to ask that we spend some time reflecting on the exchange before we commit and the momentum does render a certain trajectory too strong to redirect?

  6. Information is often concerned with the correct moral stance on on issue, or issues, and I’m sure many Iranians are grateful for the internet to help consolidate their position and opposition to the theocratic inquisition in their country.

  7. I suppose the various technological gadgets we accrue are no different than a nice warm handgun. Serviceable in certain ways, positively powerful in other ways, deadly when the barrel is dragged across one’s own pate and the trigger pulled in a brief “click”.

    Our tools cannot make us dumb. That honor is reserved for our very own dumb asses. The fact that this latest crop of powerful tools can impart a certain omniscient sense of intelligence in the user, it only means our many delusions increase in their ample fire power.

  8. “Our tools cannot make us dumb”

    If Carr and other observers such as Norman Doidge are correct about neuro- and brain plasticity, this isn’t the case. I’m convinced, for instance, that TV has ruined many people’s attention spans.

  9. Rob G,
    Did the nefarious Television stalk, capture and duct tape the poor lil-ole Attention Deficit Disabled viewer to their easy chairs and force broadcast to the witless dummies? Is there a Count Mesmer Channel Now? I know them mysteriously complex remotes are hard to reckon with but they still have a leetle button labeled “off”.

    If we must be concerned with this, might I suggest following Doc Sarvis’s method of escaping the malign clutches of the Evil FrankenTelly by kicking its lights in before going out and burning down a few billboards with a zaftig lovely named Bella.

    I just love this “Free Will” saturated era where everyone squawks endlessly about having it , as though it were some kind of Magical Possession but then when things go a tad awry, they scramble to line up firmly in the victims column whence the long lists of blame are declared.

  10. Upon this age, that never speaks its mind,
    This furtive age, this age endowed with power
    To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
    Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find
    What swims before his prow, what swirls behind —
    Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
    Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
    Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
    Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
    Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
    To weave it into fabric; undefiled
    Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still
    Upon this world from the collective womb
    Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.

    Edna St. Vincent Millay

  11. D.W., I think there’s a false dichotomy lurking there in your (mostly accurate) hyperbole. Folks have always known that cigarettes were hard to quit and they a had a general sense that they “weren’t good for you.” Only over time did it become known just how bad they were. Seems to me that one can say the same thing about television. Before people get to the point where they decide to turn the damn things off, they have to be shown what it does to them, and to their kids.

    To argue, however, that since people aren’t coerced into a given negative activity they’ve got no business complaining about unpleasant after-effects seems wrong, not to mention a tad harsh. There is such a thing as invincible ignorance, even in such small matters as that of the idiot box.

  12. We are neither pure mind nor pure will. We are embodied beings and our tools are an important component of our embodied existence which shapes the contours of our thinking and willing. I am in no sense a determinist, yet to suggest that the solution to all our woes lies in a simple act of the will seems to miss the degree to which our tools are already implicated in our thinking. This is especially evident with those who are too young to reason for themselves about the benefits and costs of their use of technology. Children are increasingly set before the screen (TV, computer, DVD player, etc.) before they know how to be temperate and discerning. When they are older they think as those who have already been influenced. This influence is not insurmountable, but neither is it insignificant.

    Freedom to choose otherwise requires the ability to first imagine otherwise. It is all well and good for us who remember a time without the ubiquitous field of electronic gadgetry that now envelopes us to say that we must limit our use to keep from losing the goods that attended a less connected age. But those who have never known a less connected age will not even know that there is anything to recover or preserve. They will not know they have a choice because they will not be able to imagine an alternative. And in the case of these most recent tools, they appear to be undermining even the very skills and habits that might have led some in time a realization of what was lost.

  13. Mr. Pinker says he can quit whenever he wants to, he just doesn’t want to. That’s my understanding of his op-ed piece. Wait – actually, he says he can’t quit, doesn’t he? “…these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.” Never mind, then. Control has been ceded.

    I do appreciate that he’s willing to put his blackberry aside during supper.

  14. Mr. Volle–

    The notion that intellectual prowess is limited to universities and upper classes has a long history. I have recently been reading about English education between 1840 and 1950 in two books by Phil Gardner (one he coauthored); one of the driving forces in educational “reform” was the idea that only university-educated people could be considered “prepared” for teaching. Working-class teachers before about 1870 were not specially trained, but merely people who knew how to read and write and how to communicate those skills to others of their status. I am not as familiar with the American story in this area, though the recent mushrooming of homeschoolers has been in part a conscious rebuke of the notion that only highly trained people can teach or think properly.

    As for the high schoolers that are graduating now. . . They might be in for a shock along the lines of the breakdown in Atlas Shrugged. In that event, thoughtful Christian witness will have the opportunity to make a huge statement.

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