Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking. —H.L. Mencken
For this invention [writing] will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. (Egyptian King Thamus to Theuth, as told by Socrates. Plato’s Phaedrus, section 275a-b)
Sounds familiar, right?
Strip out the cast of characters, replace the word writing with Internet and you have the premise of several best-selling books and well-regarded articles. You also have the complaint and worry we share as parents, educators, politicians, thinkers, and doers.
The Internet is not making us stupid. Smart is not making us dumb.
Nicholas Carr, Evgeny Morozov, and others disagree. They are the Socrates of our age. This comparison works for me in a couple ways. First, I may not agree completely with Carr and Morozov, but value their dialectic approach to this latest era of change. Second, Socrates was no dummy, but he was as skeptical of the written word as Carr is of the Internet. (To be fair, Morozov usually ends with a more balanced, if cynical, view.)
I don’t believe we are becoming more stupid than we were already. I don’t think filter bubbles and self-selection bias are more troubling now than before. I have evolving views on digital dualism, augmented reality, and the singularity. But…in a fit of Pollyanna, I have hopes the Internet and increased connectedness are making us more aware, or maybe even kinder, or at least more tolerant.
So far, I have to doubt my own thesis as much as I doubt Carr’s and Morozov’s. For each step forward (the kindness of a stranger caught on YouTube or clean water for millions via viral campaign), there are as many steps back—or steps sideways, perhaps.
King Thamus chided Theuth for his elixir of reminding, warning his pupils would be, “for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” Morozov says it more eloquently in his Twitter bio: “There are idiots. Look around.” That, if nothing else, is true.
Mencken’s view on the conscience becomes even more relevant now. We’ve moved beyond somebody may be looking to somebody is probably looking…and filming. Cases in point:
Dateline: March 2013, Oregon
University of Oregon adjunct law professor James L. Olmsted was arrested following a confrontation that turned physical. The professor was being an ass—and that was before he crossed any legal lines. It was caught on video (of course…duh).
Dateline: February 2013, Bangkok
DKNY used Humans of New York photos in a window display, even after HoNY’s Brandon Stanton had turned down their licensing request. He heard about it from a fan. “Every time one of my photos get picked up, I get notified about it.”
Dateline: January 2013, St. Louis
Pastor Alois Bell wrote a snarky message on an Applebee’s receipt. “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” A photo of the receipt went viral. Religious debate ensued; people were fired; and, I’m guessing one Pastor Alois Bell wanted to crawl in a hole.
Dateline: Pick a Year, Washington D.C.
So, just as I don’t blame the Internet for making us stupid, I admit I can’t expect it to be our conscience. Sadly, Morozov is right. There are idiots. I guess my question now is are there more or fewer than the pre-Internet days?