Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Social Media and The Dumbest Generation

I caught last night's Frontline "Digital Nation," which explored how cybertechnology is changing our lives from top to bottom. Back in August of 2008 I explored this topic in a post called "On(line) Stupidity" and came to the conclusion that while technology was having some adverse effects on students and people in general, the jury was still out on whether we are creating the "dumbest generation," as Professor Mark Bauerlein called it in his book of the same name.

Two and a half years later, however, I'm beginning to have my doubts. I still don't think the Millennial generation is the "dumbest" (they seem to have the same number of idiots per capita as my generation, the Baby Boomers or anyone else), but the question of whether cybertechnology, particularly social media, is making all of us dumber, seems to be heading towards yes.

Frontline presented researchers who are now showing that all this technological "multitasking" is making people dumber. Professor Clifford Nass at Stanford found:

Multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we've done suggests they're worse at analytic reasoning.
Bauerlein appeared in last night's documentary and made similar points, arguing that not only is it becoming increasingly difficult for professors to assign novels to read, but writing skills are sinking as well (with which I would wholly concur). As Dr. Nass put it:
Instead of writing an essay, they write in paragraphs. They write a paragraph and they say, "Oh, now I'll look at FaceBook for a while." Or they write a paragraph and say, "Oh, a chance to play poker," or to do all of these at once. So what we're seeing is less of a notion of a big idea carried through and much more little bursts and snippets.
The documentary wasn't one-sided by any stretch. A variety of cyberutopians was featured, extolling the virtues of technology ("World of Warcraft" is apparently Eden itself) and dismissing pointy heads who challenge the social media zeitgeist. I guess that includes me as well.

Not only do I tend to agree that social media is dumbing us down, but I find it can be both repressive in nature (as I opined last week), and increasingly used for criminality.

For example, though I've joked over the years that Facebook's primary purpose was allowing people to troll for the nookie (be it old strange or new), I had no idea actual pimps and escort services were using it as well. According to Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, social media is transforming the sex trade in New York and elsewhere.
Of the women I talked to, 61 percent said they’ve used craigslist, mostly for advertising. But even before the crackdown on the site’s adult-services section, sex workers were turning to Facebook: 83 percent have a Facebook page, and I estimate that by the end of 2011, Facebook will be the leading on-line recruitment space.

Seriously, I'm not a Luddite by any stretch, and I'm not denying the obvious: that social media and the internet have dramatically changed social interaction for many people (middle class people, that is). Obviously I realize the value of some of these technologies given that I'm posting this to a blog and will probably "tweet" about it later.

But is it making us smarter? Nein. Turn off the computer, put the phone down, shut off the t.v. and go read a book. Here are 50 sociological classics that I'm positive will make you smarter.


MRMacrum said...

Awesome.............wait a minute, brittnee jes twitted. Back in a flash.......

My daughter, who has her masters degree and will be entering a doctoral program next year, has what I think is a healthy handle on all this new gee whiz media stuff. She texts with the rest of her tatted and pierced crew, yet her favorite electronic gizmo is her Nook. She downloads and reads maybe a couple of books a week.

As you said, I do not think any generation is dumber than any other. It is more that each generation picks its own stupidity. I am a boomer and I can testify that the stupidity I chose was not just a sign of me being especially stupid, I am damn lucky I survived with enough brain cells to even write about it.

I choose to be optimistic about the new age of electronic wonderment. We are experiencing its infancy. Provided the World does not consume itself out of existence in the near future, I am sure we will manage to come to grips with it and move on to the next threat to our intelligence.

Anyway - Another fine essay guy. Thanks.

Siena said...

Hey, I think you make a good point involving Bauerlein's book. Social media can obviously be used for good but is changing the way the younger generation communicates. I made a video response to the book: