It would be an understatement to say that the Internet has taken our culture by storm. Our entire lives can now be lived out in virtual reality. Paying bills, arguing about politics, watching TV, meeting a spouse, chatting with friends, going to church, verifying how many books we have checked out at the library, renting movies – all these and more take place with increasing scope online. We are told that this gives us more convenience, more access, more choices, more variety, more…well, more.
But for all these “mores,” is the Internet good for us and for our culture? To borrow an older word for the ethical principles by which we live our lives, what kind of mores does this obsession with electronic “mores” create and encourage?
Although there are certainly positives to the Internet, I see three large problems with it. These need not be actual problems for any particular Internet user, mind you, but they are certainly potential problems for any Internet user. They are, I believe, actual problems for our computer-obsessed culture taken as a whole.
First is cultural democratization. Political democracy, in which the people control the government, is not a bad thing provided that it does not degenerate to mob rule. But as the assumption that every person’s opinion, however uninformed, is as good as anyone else’s because all are equally “online” and equally “free,” democracy is the death of a stable culture transmittable to the next generation.
For example, who says that a Dostoevsky novel deserves preservation, but “fanfic” on some website deserves being forgotten? The answer may be obvious to traditionally-educated people, but today’s increasingly digital generation is at war with tradition. The “fanfic” gets 1,000 hits a day; the Dostoevsky novel gets 10 hits a year. Our world finds it hard to distinguish popularity from quality, because in a democracy everyone is equal.
On the Internet, everyone has as much say-so about anything as anyone else. But the Internet has no standards of accountability. No one oversees the content of blogs. No one ensures that a 13-year old can’t alter a Wikipedia article written by an expert so that it now conveys false information. No one can stop thoughtless chatter on Facebook from becoming reputation-destroying slander by being linked and re-linked, out of context, on dozens or hundreds of other sites.
Second is mental fragmentation. Studies have shown that the more (passive) watching we do, the less is our (active) ability to think coherently. Watching trains our minds to frequently shift from image to image to image rather than to focus on something for an extended period of time. Coupled with advertising incessantly interrupting what little serious reading we do online, our ability to contextualize the serious, to separate it from the banal, steadily erodes. Everything has its own separate “window” on the computer screen. Despite the “always on” connection, nothing is truly connected.
Third is educational trivialization. Knowledge used to be power, but on the Internet information rules. However, knowledge (let alone wisdom) is not merely “information.” By deluging us with thousands of pieces of mere information every week, all of it presented in the same fragmenting context, the Internet encourages us not to develop the habits of mind needed to discern between truth and reality, knowledge and opinion, serious thought and meaningless drivel. The Internet’s assumptions that everything is information and that information ought always to be free and universally available ultimately devalues everything.
Although there is some good online and it will not to do to imagine that we can literally turn back the clock to the pre-Internet age and find some utopia-in-the-making, it is surely a healthy and responsible thing to ask “Is the Internet good for us and our culture?”