Internet – Polarization and Teaching it
I’ve written about polarizing technologies in the past, and I was inconclusive about the internet. Today I came across a post from Kevin Drum who believes that the internet will polarize people’s cognitive abilities:
[T]he internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter. If you don’t know how to use it, or don’t have the background to ask the right questions, you’ll end up with a head full of nonsense. But if you do know how to use it, it’s an endless wealth of information. Just as globalization and de-unionization have been major drivers of the growth of income inequality over the past few decades, the internet is now a major driver of the growth of cognitive inequality. Caveat emptor.
I couldn’t agree more.
Thinking more on the subject, I’ve realized that an introduction of any kind of tool will result in some kind of polarization. The advent of writing separated those who are literate from those who aren’t, the invention of the automobile separated those who could drive and those who couldn’t, and the proliferation of information will separate those who can deal with it from those who can’t.
The issue here is not just digital literacy either; it’s how people use the tool itself. Like most media, it’s easy to get caught up in entertaining but mindless content. Websites are battling for people’s attention and clicks to maximize their ad revenue by throwing up shock articles and other assorted crap. It’s easy to get caught up in celebrity gossip and fanboy blogs while ignoring harder to digest but higher production content.
The reason that TVs have such a bad reputation these days is that they’re full of what people consider crap. However, TVs as a tool isn’t inherently bad. Use it correctly and access a wealth of timely information.
This of course does not mean that we should dispense the tools we’ve created. Instead, we need to do with the internet what we’ve done with all the major tools in the past: teach people. We need to teach people how to navigate the swarms of information available online, evaluate it, and make sense of it. My memory of middle school and high school research projects revolved around books which had a minimum level of inherent authority. Now that anyone can put up anything online, people need to be taught how to gather the relevant information and present it accurately. While the information savvy have grokked this naturally, I worry that we will be leaving behind a lot of people who aren’t fortunate enough to have a good mentor or be gifted.
What we should absolutely not be doing is limiting people’s access like banning Wikipedia from schools.