Wednesday, November 1, 2017

What hath the Internet Wrought

Recent articles (no, I'm not linking can find it yourself; that's going to be important later) have discussed the impact of the spate of electronic devices on the mind of the young person. I thought it meet to add my two cents in on this. I'm sure I have, at some point previous, written about the loss of random reading and the problem of subcontracting memory to the cloud, but I have come upon another negative consequence (unintended though it may be) of the ubiquity of the hive mind.

There has been a loss of imagination and creativity.

This might sound counter-intuitive. The plethora of apps and the ability to free up the brain from the shackles of lower order thinking should be allowing our minds to soar free and high, going places that were previously reserved only for the intellectually elite or vocationally idle. But that isn't what has happened. What I have seen is a reversion to an even more concrete worldview because, once anything can be found on the internet, there is no reason for anyone to think of anything else.

Case in point -- I assigned my class to find, in their every day experiences, examples of the actual use of rhetoric which manifested particular logical fallacies. I wanted them to become sensitive to these errors in thinking and see how rife our common discourse is with them. Instead of tooling about their worlds, students started googling examples. They were "finding" examples in their lives because their lives were simply a series of directed web searches, standing on the shoulders of previous generations who were sitting at their computers. The second element of the assignment met even more resistance. I asked students to invent their own scenario in which the fallacy was invoked. I was asking them to throw off the bonds of others' thoughts and create, on their own. They started googling examples and copying them down, insisting that they couldn't think of anything. A bunch of teenagers, asked to make up something, demurred, preferring to have others imagine the world for them. That's sad.

I have gotten used to students' double (and triple) checking everything I say to see if some invisible, anonymous (but for some reason, more trustworthy) website confirms my claims. I have gotten used to their sharing documents with each other so any mystery or surprise is now impossible -- I give an assignment to one section and the other class knows about it instantly because they are all in the same group chat or google group. I have resigned myself to accepting that students can't spell without little red lines guiding them, can't physically sign their own names or even shape letters properly when they are forced to write by hand. But I had held out hope that all of these wires and waves would empower the students to push the envelope further and ask deeper, more analytical questions reflecting deeper thinking. Instead, they have relied on the work of others and reserve their questioning for when they can establish positions which challenge the accepted classroom norms (in terms of information...I'm not accusing anyone of disciplinary problems as condoned by the web) only as substantiated by internet encouragement. Even their rebellion is canned. What will happen when they can't find a preset voice to glom on to? What will happen when they have to be revolutionary on their own terms?

Look, I like the internet. It has given us a lot. But I'm just sad that I see students squandering opportunities to innovate and invent because they see this skill of mining the web (an important practice, one which we seem to be stressing a lot) and this practice of collaborative thinking as being ends, not means.


  1. And another thing -- the internet has made for a generation of people who cannot engage in person (or even via a phone call). I hate dealing with people but, when forced, I know how. My students complain that someone didn't answer a text or email so I suggest that they find the person and speak in person. They are dumbstruck. When we go to pick someone up for carpool, the students in the car text the person at whose house we have arrived instead of simply calling. They just don't know how to make eye contact and hold a conversation.


Feel free to comment and understand that no matter what you type, I still think you are a robot.