The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Internet is making us smarter dumber

(Reading Time: 4 minutes)

Recently, I attended a church where they handed me a bulletin. On the cover was this image.

On the left are sepia-colored pages from an old 2-column Bible. The image fades right to a second image. This one is a computer screen shot of Bible text online with navigation menus on the top and "community contributions" along the side. The sermon series centered on Acts, with the theme "One God. One Story."

The implication, of course, is that no matter what format we read our Bibles in, God's work in the world is the same.

In the English language, the direction of our writing is left to right. Thus, we think of progress as moving in the same direction—left to right, top to bottom. Thus, with the old paper context on the left and the new digital context on the right, the design suggests progress, and it "feels" balanced to our sensibilities.

I say all this for two reasons. First, everyone senses that big changes are afoot. Our transition into the digital context has been disorienting, upending nearly every corner of society. These changes, we sense, have few parallels in history. Second, the print context we've lived in for centuries has predisposed us to think in certain ways. Our print world has shaped us, even if we don't realize that left to right suggests progress. In the same way, our digital disorientation will work us over.

That's partly why we already sense the changes.

The world is changing in historic ways. I do not doubt that most every generation has thought such things. So, with humble naivete, I submit that it is more true today than it has been in the last 500 years. Why? People are comparing the advent of the Internet and personal computing to none other than the printing press and the mass public that it created in the 15th and 16th centuries. The printing press brought about the Reformation, the Renaissance, religious wars, and subsequently the Enlightenment and modernism itself. The electronic age will likely effect similar shifts—not least of which is postmodernism.

These comparisons are not limited to academics or to extremists. The public seems to be accepting this idea and agreeing with it. Nicholas Carr's new book, The Shallows, is certainly contributing to the popular-level agreement with these historic shifts. He's certainly generating plenty of conversationon the Internet—where else?

But when I say that "the world is changing," I must amend myself. It is not the world that is changing. It is us. We are changing in historic ways, to degrees we haven't known since the advent of the printing press and all its effects. But how?

Mr Carr is bringing that question to the general public. Wall Street Journal asked it this way: "Does the Internet make you smarter or dumber?" To answer the question, Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr go head to head with articles arguing the two sides—smarter and dumber—respectively.

25 years ago, Neil Postman made the dumbing-down argument himself, suggesting that with TV we are "amusing ourselves to death." And in a more recent, Internet-age response to Postman, Steven Johnson argues that "everything bad is good for you," including video games, television, Internet, and film.

So the argument is not new, and sides have been taken and will be taken in the future. But behind this question is a tacit agreement on all sides—the electronic age is changing us. No matter whether it's making us smarter or dumber, it is making us.

This implication is not insignificant. McLuhan said, "We shape our tools, then our tools shape us." And no one in the discussion is disagreeing with him, not Shirky or Carr, not Johnson or Postman. The question is not if technology is changing us, but how it is.

Most people will surrender to technology's swift advance, not mindlessly, but certainly without a second thought. But for followers of Jesus, being like Christ is one of the definitive goals. For that reason, it is important that we not also be pressed into the mold technology is making. We are called rather to surrender to Christ and be shaped by him. This means questioning what our computers, cars, and cell phones are doing to us. And not only to us, but to others. And not only to us and others, but to the relationship that forms between us.

As we move from left to right, we must ask whether we should not be moving right to left in some cases.

Nicholas Carr says the Internet is making us dumber.
Clay Shirky says the Internet is making us smarter.
Steven Johnson says increased content consumption is all that matters.

Your mom taught you well