Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Dumbest Generation, Part 2

Yesterday Nick Peters offered his take as a current member of the “Dumbest Generation” (albeit not a dumb member of it). Today I offer my own take not just as a member of the earlier generation, but as an information science guy (that’s a librarian, for those who don’t recognize the parlance).

No one should be surprised by what Bauerlein reveals about the way modern computer technology has been turned into a vast enabler of socially immature persons seeking endless entertainment and self-reflection. I’m sure the ink wasn’t dry on Gutenberg’s first project before it occurred to someone that the printing press would be a great way to also distribute pornography. The conversion of technological advances in communication for the purposes of diversionary activities is just a repeat pattern I’m sure we’ll see again and again after Twitter becomes a fad and the last Facebook page lies dormant.

I saw this coming, in a sense, back in the 80s when I worked as an evening switchboard operator at the Orlando Public Library. The VCR was the new toy for the socially immature of the day, and every night, OPL enabled these benighted souls by allowing them to call in requests for specific titles to be held for them to pick up the next day. Thursday was the worst night for this, of course, since Friday pickup was for weekend viewing. I got to know by voice dozens of people who called in every Thursday night to order their tapes. (I got so sick of it that when I worked on Sundays, I always asked to take Thursday off as compensation.)

There’s a rather critical difference in this cycle, though. The Internet has many more fingers than Gutenberg ever did. The data can flow faster and more readily than it ever could before. What that means in practical terms is that it’s a great deal easier for the dumbest generation to become, and remain, dumb and self-absorbed. It’s like offering a cocaine addict an endless line of his drug with no police in sight.

Critics who respond by pointing to the potential educational benefits of the Internet are missing the old adage that given a choice between fruits and vegetables on one hand, and Hostess Ding Dongs on the other, most people are going to lunge for the Ding Dongs. That’s evident in real life, from the survey of those reported by Bauerlein who cannot even recite basic facts such as the names of any of the current Supreme Court justices. Of course, if that’s beyond their abilities, it’s fair to assume that making an informed choice as a voter is even more out of reach. Power has been placed in the hands of the misfits, whether it be the power to vote or the power to (mis)inform in venues like Wikipedia.

Just as distressing to me as an information professional is that so many in the dumbest generation refuse to read books, reasoning that if they need information, there’s no need to find or retain it now; they can always find it on the Internet. But as Bauerlein points out, it is the retention of information that allows a person to form connections between seemingly unrelated bits of data and form new conclusions. What may be of no use now may offer insight later when paired with something else. The dumbest generation can’t do original thought like this, because all that’s in their head is the latest news about who is dating whom.

And of course, who can resist a medium in which it is possible to endlessly self-promote 24/7? You don’t need to be a narcissist to appreciate a venue that allows you to draw attention to yourself, to be continually validated by peers.

As Bauerlein points out, democracy can’t thrive on such a badly informed, self-centered citizenry. The next few years do not bode well for the nation in that respect; but they also do not bode well for the church. Christianity demands discipleship and self-sacrifice, and this is vastly at odds with the priorities of all-fronts ignorance (except when it comes to socializing) and attention-getting. Reaching the Dumbest Generation with the gospel won’t be an easy task.

Convincing them with apologetics will probably be nearly impossible.

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