The development of new means of communication has historically been a cycle of hope and disappointment. To use a specific example, one of my older college professors told me that there had once been high hopes for TV as a vehicle for education. I had my doubts about this, but it did make for a good story when he contrasted the hope against the reality. This was back in the 1980s and TV is an even emptier vessel of entertainment now than it was then.
When the public was able to access the internet, there were also high hopes for it being a vehicle of education and enlightenment. However, the reality turned out (as it always does) to be rather more empty and sordid. It is an exaggeration to say that the net is a vehicle for porn and malware, but it is only a small exaggeration. Of course, the web does provide some things of educational value (and not just education about porn).
Interestingly, there are those who contend that our interaction with the internet is robbing us of our capacity for thinking deeply. The most famous work on this is, of course, The Shallows. Rather than discuss this work, I will focus on two topics. The first is the impact of the net on my thinking and the second is the impact of the net on my students.
Since I grew up and went to school in a pre-web world (I first used email in grad school) my habits were rather well formed before the internet hit it big. I did, however, notice the obvious: the internet is a distraction machine. In the days of dial up and before the web, its power was rather limited. However, the always on access and the rise of the web has meant that the power of the net to distract is very great indeed. When I first got broadband, I found that it had a significant impact on my focus when writing. I would write for a while, and then be led astray by the net. Then I found that I was spending way too much time surfing the web. Realizing that this was a major waste of time, I worked hard to ensure that I was using the net in a purposeful manner rather than just surfing about. Using it as a tool rather than becoming its victim seems to have enabled me to keep up my depth of thought (which might have not been all that deep to begin with).
Almost without exception, my students grew up with the internet and have smart phones. First, a bit about the internet and internet connected smart phones. As phones became smarter, I noticed that my students spent more and more class time with their attention on their phones. I also noticed the obvious: students who spent more time focusing on their phones generally did worse than students who paid attention in class. I have also noticed that students who are smart-phone obsessive seem to excel at focusing on their phones (although they are constantly switching between texting, watching videos, Facebooking and so on) but generally do worse when trying to focus on anything else (like a test or lecture). This distraction extends beyond the classroom, of course. For example, when I go to the movies at Florida State (they have a really good theater) I see smart phones lighting up like fireflies all through the movie.When students are not using their smart phones, they are often using their computers and typically being distracted by Facebook and other time devouring sites. In short, many students seem to exist in a perpetual state of distraction. Such distraction, obviously enough, is not conducive to reflection or deep thought. This becomes especially obvious when students write paper using the texting abbreviations.
Now that tablets are all the rage, I expect things to only get worse. After all, while some smart phones are essentially tiny tablets (or tablets are big smart phones), they have even more to offer in terms of distraction. Worst of all, they provide the perfect cover: a student taking notes on her tablet looks just like a student posting on Facebook.
Second, a bit about Google. On the one hand, Google does provide an excellent research tool. I use it myself and have found it incredibly valuable. On the other hand, some of my colleagues have complained that Google makes research too easy and also provides too much crap (which is a general criticism of the internet as well). The main concern about it being too easy is not merely “old folks” complaining about how easy kids have it. Rather, a legitimate concern is that students might not develop critical research and assessment skills in terms of sources and content. There is also the obvious fact that Google is a cheater’s delight in that it makes plagiarism amazingly easy. Of course, the flip side to this is that it also makes catching plagiarism very easy (I catch 2-3 students per class every semester using Google). Interestingly, the percentage of students I have caught plagiarizing has remained fairly steady. When Wikipedia first became available, I did see a spike in plagiarism. However, this dropped off-at least in my classes. However, I could be an exception since I take a very proactive approach to plagiarism.Obviously enough, the ease with which people can plagiarize can have a negative impact on thought.
There is also the concern that the ease with which people can look things up also impedes thought. After all, rather than working through something oneself, a person can just use Google to find the answer or solution. As the metaphor goes, the mind is like a muscle in that it needs to be used in order to grow stronger.
Yet another concern is the fact that people can easily find enclaves of people who agree with them on the net. This encourages people to simply stick with their pre-existing beliefs rather than subjecting them to criticism and thought. This, of course, can contribute to shallow thinking.
There is also the concern that shallowness is rewarded and depth is punished. For example, lengthy blog posts on complex subjects generally do not get much attention. As such, people are more inclined to create shallow things, thus making them and their audience even more shallow in their thinking.
Finally, while the internet and associated technology provide an incredible distraction and can lead people to shallow thinking, it is also important to consider other factors as well. After all, the internet is not the only change in recent years. For example, college has become increasingly expensive while (somewhat paradoxically) college budgets are being cut. As such, students are often distracted by work and are often taught by faculty (or adjuncts) who are increasingly overworked and underpaid.