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.
Even television, that passive, much-reviled entertainment, is getting richer and more complex. The undemanding plots and one-dimensional characters of a typical television sitcom 30 years ago contrast poorly with the multiple, interlinked storylines and highly developed characters of today’s programs. Compare for example the basic linear narratives of early Simpsons episodes with the intricate structures of the show’s more recent outings. Television is becoming more engaging and, indeed, more mentally challenging.
Nevertheless, cultural pessimists argue that our ancestors were better off. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Lessing argued, the literate classes were respectful of great literature. Similarly, T.S.Eliot surveyed Western culture 50 years ago and famously wrote that “our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were 50 years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity”. Even earlier, Plato criticised his fellow Greeks’ love of the emotions in theatre and poetry, believing that what he considered serious thought was dying out.
But when cultural pessimists reminisce about earlier times, they are too often highly selective. The 18th-century gentlemen who respected literature were a small minority of the total, mostly illiterate population. And cheap, poorly written paperbacks were just as large a portion of the market for books as they are today.
Doris Lessing and Andrew Keen compare the best of the past with the average of the present. With a formula like that, it’s no wonder today always loses.
People are resistant to change. During the industrial revolution, British textile and agricultural workers destroyed the new labour-saving machines, as they saw them as threatening their jobs and the world they were comfortable with.
Of course, their predictions of doom turned out to be inaccurate – the introduction of those machines was the beginning of a massive spurt of economic growth that raised the wealth and living standards of the working class.
When Lessing condemns the internet as full of mere inanities, she similarly ignores the exciting possibilities of culture now that the internet has freed it from scarcity.
But cultural pessimism is not just resistance to change. What is most striking about contemporary cultural pessimism is just how elitist it is. Not everybody can be a novelist, but anyone can write a blog.
We should be glad that cultural pessimists have found a new target in the internet – it means that our culture is becoming even more diverse, anarchic and, best of all, truly democratised.