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On The Internet and the New Dark Age

Submitted by Daniel A. Freeman on September 23, 2008 - 2:38pm

There’s been an interesting discussion going on lately about the Internet. Some leading thinkers and scholars have postulated that for all the convenience and expediency that society gets from the Internet, we may actually be surfing ourselves into a new Dark Age. While this idea has been discussed quietly in bars, coffee shops and at dinner tables for some time now, the public debate really took off with this recent article Nicholas Carr did in The Atlantic Monthly.

Carr, citing personal experience and a wealth of anecdotal evidence, theorizes that the Internet, with its quick and easy access to endless amounts of information, has created an intellectual laziness that is reverberating throughout our society. He argues that the web, while it may have us reading more, has us concentrating less, thinking less and relying on machines for functions that should be carried out by our brains.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.


Wired shot back with this piece, which characterizes this criticism as a sky-is-falling approach that is desperate to find a fatal flaw in the digital revolution, whether there is one or not. Author David Wolman argues that those who blame the Internet for the prevalence of misinformation, misconception and intellectual laziness are merely ignoring the fact that these problems existed long before the Internet.

It should be obvious that I side with Wolman—if I didn’t I probably wouldn’t be a blog editor—but this got me thinking about the library community. There can be no question that librarians as a profession have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Internet revolution. The Internet has given us multitudes of new and better ways to serve and connect with our patrons. The Internet has helped us tremendously, and I think most librarians would agree with that even while acknowledging that technology has cost some of us our jobs and forced others to learn a completely new set of skills mid-career.

Frankly, in my corner of the library world, we’re so pro-Internet that I wonder if there is anyone in our profession who might share the sentiments voiced in Nicholas Carr’s piece. So I put it to you, my fellow librarians—how has the Internet had a negative effect on your job? In what ways is the Internet having a negative impact on our profession as a whole?

I know that I, for one, am looking forward to the continuation of this debate.


Comments (9)

Maybe they are right about

Maybe they are right about "intellectual laziness", but if internet really helps to save our time it's great.

Our current

Our current politico-scientific dark age is easily evinced by the visual alignment of obvious chained meteor impacts at an ancient equator on the earth defining a maximized "great circle" on the earth. The event was analogous to the Shoemaker Levi 9 impacts. These impacts are still aligned across multiple continents and define the western coastlines of several continents including the Pacific Rim of Fire island chains, North America, and South America. This evidence lends sufficient credance to the expanding earth theory and refutes the drifting tectonic plates theory. The event probably excised the moon from earth's mantle leaving an entire hemisphere of the earth covered in water and allowing Australia the impetus to separate from Antarctica as well as separate the continents of North America, South America, Africa etc forming the Atlantic ocean. The moon's excision from the earth was not a single impact event so the earth's iron core was not affected; the quasi-molten moon material quickly formed a sphere and locked in phase with the earth with the same side of the moon always facing the earth as it does today. Believe your eyes or believe the "experts". The earth is not flat, the sun doesn't revolve around the earth, and meteor impact chains are highly visible on the earth today. Prospectors who are highly interested in meteor impact logistics include those associated with precious gems, ore mining, oil, and uranium as the heat of such impacts are known to coalesce such deposits in the earth.

I think you are absolutely

I think you are absolutely right, Peggy. When this discussion began, that was one of my fist thoughts. Sure, there is a lot of misinformation and disinformation on the Internet, but to me it seems proportional to what was out there ten years ago.

It also seems strange to me that someone would blame a lack of critical thinking on the Internet. The Internet is not the only new thing that has changed society in the last decade. Why not blame new television shows, video games or cell phones? Your suggestion that we look at the educational system is definitely a good start.

If there is truly a breakdown in critical thinking in our society, the answer is definitely far more complex than "The Internet did it".

The information that came to

The information that came to us in the media before the Internet also was full of misinformation. The basic problem is that so many people do not critically think, do not judge the material as truthful or misleading. But critical thinking is not taught in an educational system that is more interested in what is being taught rather than how students should best use their brains. Wouldn't if be great if librarians could teach critical thinking in their daily work?

I'm a current library

I'm a current library science student and former middle school teacher. I agree with the other comments on this topic and want to add...whenever I assigned a research project, the *first* thing all the students did was dove for google. We had a great library and fabulous librarians who had worked with them in their 7th grade research paper and in the required computer class (so they all had had at least one library unit), who put out displays of relevant books for every project, who had a well-stocked and inviting reference section, but the students all felt more at home with electronic resources and wouldn't use books unless forced to (by requirements of the project, insufficiency of google results, or unavailability of computers). Add to this minimal ability (despite their earlier library work) to discern the reliability of sites -- they accept top google hits very uncritically -- and you end up with some very funky information.

I was not one of those teachers who said never to use internet results -- actually, my students generally needed to go online to find enough information (our library was great but still a middle school library). But there has to be a counterbalance to the gravitational pull of uncritical googling.

As a former full-time high

As a former full-time high school librarian (only because of outside funding) in a district staffed with half-time librarians, I agree that teachers are not teaching basic information literacy or utilizing technology-- probably because they are overwhelmed with content standards. I was responsible for the vast disparity of information literacy skills of the student body. I love using technology in the classroom and the library, but teaching LOC subject headings and suggesting that Ted's (no last name) essay on The Great Gatsby is unreliable in the same hour was daunting.

maybe this is the reason I moved to a college library...

A must read for those that agree or disagree with Carr is Feed by M.T. Anderson, a scary Sci-Fi novel about when we all have the Internet streamed into our brains. After reading it, I can't help but think that it is possible.

Well, after reading this and

Well, after reading this and the aforementioned articles, I thought I would share my thoughts on this. I do believe that Google is making us stupid. I believe there is more misinformation available and the general public believe this misinformation. We used to go to trusted advisors (doctors, lawyers, accountants) for some guidance when faced with an information dilema. Now, we can easily turn to the Internet and find what we believe is sound advice and information. We are also so overloaded with stimuli and information that it becomes difficult to absorb and properly classify internally.

I feel that tools such as Google has helped in information retrieval when used appropriately. However, the concept of information freedom offers these tools without training, education, and understanding. So how do we control misinformation? We don't. That is the beauty of freedom of speech.

Unlike Nicholas Carr I do

Unlike Nicholas Carr I do not believe the internet or the www is making us stupid. What it is doing is making it effortless for us to indulge our predilection to behave in "stupid" ways. It is sooooooooo convenient to just turn to google and type in a few words. I do it every day if not every hour.

Easy to find information is immeasurably more desirable than accurate information. And google does such a good job it is hard not to think that it will actually understand our questions and will gently take us by the hand and lead us to our heart's desire. Contrast that with an algorithm that matches strings of letters and numbers and its easier to understand the seductive nature of google.

"So I put it to you, my

"So I put it to you, my fellow librarians—how has the Internet had a negative effect on your job?"

Working with teenagers in a public library, I find myself constantly educating them on the difference between Internet sources (Websites) and online databases. They don't believe that their teachers will allow them to use information found in our databases because it was obtained "online." It seems that teachers are not taking the time to educate their students with basic information literacy skills. At the same time, teachers seem to be discrediting all information that is found online through any Website.

My job has been made difficult because, as we all know, the trend is that most of the current information we hold is only available through online articles, encyclopedias, etc. To teens (and for the most part their teachers) databases are no better than google search results. I feel this is an uphill battle with no end in sight.