The Vandals Within the Gates

by Brad Nelson   12/29/13
There’s going to be a fair amount of contradiction in this blog post. I’m going to ask you to jump around the web, which is the very thing cautioned against by the subject matter.

This was my sequence of web-hopping this morning, or at least part of it. I started out by reading Dan Flynn’s excellent article, The Vandals within the Gates, over at The American Spectator.

This article then lead to another article by Flynn on the same subject, Dead from the Internet.

Last but not least, this then led me to the article by Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid? (which you can then follow to a book-length handling of the subject matter in The Shallows by the same author).

I’d prefer you first follow and read those three articles above so as to gain some depth in the subject matter. But, such is perhaps the nature of our brains these days, I suppose I should sum it up in a Google-like factoid:

The medium of our information (oral storytelling vs. the written page, handwriting vs. using a typewriter, reading a book vs. bouncing around the internet) effects how our brains work and how we perceive reality. It is the belief of Nicholas Carr (backed up by scientific data in his full-length book on the subject) that the very way in which we think about things is quite plastic. Our minds are formed by the medium (in this case for the worse…the hop-around, skimming, headline-oriented, soundbyte-superficial internet).

It is his assertion that our internet culture has learned to be like a pancake: wide, but not very deep. An effect of this, according to Carr, is that many people couldn’t sit down and read a full book even if they wanted to. Our minds have been conditioned to skipping around headlines, pulling a fact or quote from here or there, fragmentary link-following, and using this as a unknown substitute for knowledge and wisdom. (By the way, I agree, I agree, ditto, I agree.) We thus learn a bunch of superficial facts but we haven’t the sufficiently deep background in order to be particularly wise about any given subject (despite whatever our conceits to knowledge might be).

He cites a few instances of young people who have actually forsworn books as a legitimate process in the gathering of information…such are people now conditioned by internet-skimming. He also cites many old-school book readers who say that they have begun to find it difficult to sit down and read an entire book. I also see the same thing happening in myself. I still read books, but my impatience level has certainly risen and I have many books left one-quarter read, if that. I’m often thinking “Get on with it!” And, in fact, many books these days are padded and they indeed are not particularly deep (it’s sort of a chicken or the egg thing). The author even makes note of how some books are little more than articles (and the reverse can happen as well).

Well, color me impressed by this line of inquiry. To me, it explains a lot. A culture that gains its “facts” ping-ponging between television, the mainstream media, and the internet is not going to think the same as a culture with a classical and deep education, particularly one based upon volumes of great books. And this isn’t just a difference in what one holds as facts, although that plays a key part as well. It’s that people become hampered and are unable to reason or to see any kind of big picture if they are of the superficial internet mindset.

This would seem to be an unexpected outcome. After all, the internet opens a person up to the entire world. But the premise of Carr does not dispute this. He simply says that gathering a few stones on the surface of a large pond is not the same as diving deep into any one pond (or many ponds).

I couldn’t agree more. And I think more and more that this “Progressive” (even libertarian) set will not be able to address our societal problems. And it will not be just because many of them are evil Marxists/Leftists or have a revisionist set of facts. It will be because they are simply distanced from the kind of wisdom that it takes to understand the problems in the first place. It will be, as it is in many places now, the superficial blind leading the superficial blind.
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.

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3 Responses to The Vandals Within the Gates

  1. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Absorbing facts is a necessary part of learning. But a number of follow up steps are required. Facts must be organized and then considered and analyzed before a person can intelligently determine how to put such information to use. These follow up steps take a bit more effort than simply staring at a computer screen. It is called thinking.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I think this one commentor to the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” got to the heart of it:

      It is true that the new balance the internet brings causes people to think differently in order to survive (mentally). However, I think that the value of knowing a topic thoroughly is forgotten – While writing a history essay, it is quite simple to look up fifteen facts and have a three-prongued argument for a thesis with analysis based on those pieces of evidence. And yet, if I just pay attention in class, take notes, and know my topic inside and out with information at hand that I will never mention in my essay, I find myself arguing a different thesis in a different fashion. The connections in support are no longer based on the surface image of what happened in the past, but the motives, the implications, the possible conspiracies, and basically the intricate, infinate workings of any human mind.

      It’s similar to a theory I have espoused: For every one word you write, you had better absorb ten others from some worthy book or article.

      I know that’s true for me. If I don’t continue to deepen my knowledge, I just begin to say that same things over and over. And those things might be true. But saying them by rote tends to lose a sense of involvement and understanding.

      Think of how plagued our society is by the superficial, by what Jonah calls “The Tyranny of Cliches.” People go around saying “diversity” or “tolerance” and they have no idea that they are dumbing-down themselves and others. We should be laughing at these fools. But instead they are given gold stars.

      There is nothing inherently good about “tolerance.” It depends on what you’re “tolerating.” It’s not good to tolerate wife-beating, for instance. And there is nothing inherently good about “diversity.” For example, an airline cockpit staffed by one competent pilot and one incompetent co-pilot would be more “diverse” than a cockpit staffed by completely competent people.

      Perhaps it has always been so. Language has been used by demagogues to obscure and bamboozle and by various useful idiots to artificially prop up their own egos. But these days we have made such things a perverse art.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I suspect this would mainly be a problem for children, and would indicate that they should be introduced to books before they get to the Internet — and should always be encouraged to keep reading. Certainly I’ve been able to finish the books I start, even if it sometimes takes a while. This is particularly true because I will occasionally go off to read something short in a periodical (including NR).

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