Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles Robert Barron recently gave a pair of quite interesting talks at Google and Facebook. Now approaching 30 million views, Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire is the most influential Catholic evangelization ministry online. Bishop Barron is the ideal teacher, and this for two reasons: mastery of his subject and a genuine love (in the Augustinian sense) of his listeners. These qualities allow him to communicate complex ideas in comprehensible ways and, like his hero Aquinas, to dispassionately consider objections on their own merit without demonizing anyone. In a mass-media world awash with anti-intellectual polemics, Bishop Barron is manifestly reasonable and pastoral.
All of this being said, I was surprised by Bishop Barron’s unqualified affirmation of the Internet as a great good for us all. I understand it would not do for an honored guest to note the pernicious features of his host’s profession, but while allowing for noble endeavors such as Word on Fire and Crisis and other good things, the Internet also makes possible virtually unrestricted mass communication of the basest inclinations of our sinful nature. It is debatable that the Internet is an unqualified good. It is more often the case that the Internet promulgates the worst that has been thought and said, not the best.
Besides obvious moral risks, are there cognitive risks to those growing up in a personalized, voice-activated, high-speed, ever-changing, always “tweeting,” incessantly “following,” electronic environment? Neuroscientists speak of the neuroplasticity of the human brain, meaning the brain can undergo physiological changes as it adapts to circumstances in the environment, such as the development of a new tool. When a technology performs tasks previously performed by the brain, our brains gradually change accordingly as the need for certain neural functions becomes obsolete. We might consider the impact of calculators on American students’ ability (or willingness) to learn mathematics. Why bother using our brains when a device will do things for us?
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Is there something about the technology itself that, over time, impacts the way we think? In a very interesting article in The Atlantic in 2008, Nicholas Carr wondered if Google is making us dumber. He noticed that for some time he was feeling something “remapping the neural circuitry” of his brain. Carr believes it’s the Internet. He observed a change in the way he thinks, most in evidence when he tried to read a book. Citing 1960s media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Carr asserts of media:
They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
McLuhan also observed that technology is often the mechanism used to advance utopian ideals under the guise of enhancing physical or neural functions. This was the promise made by the inventors of the Internet. But McLuhan notes that mechanization ends by supplanting human functions rather than enhancing them. Bookless curricula and inquiry-based learning are now the watchwords of mechanized schooling that increasingly diminishes the need for actual teaching or learning.
Carr cites a study of search habits undertaken by scholars from University College London. Over a five-year period they documented the search behaviors of people using two popular research sites. The study concluded that a new kind of reading is emerging which they characterized as a “skimming activity.” Visitors to the sites would “power browse” in order to “avoid reading in the traditional sense.” If the Internet is changing our reading habits, it is also indirectly changing our thinking habits because reading well precedes thinking well.
Though a consensus about long-term effects of Internet use is still forming, a phenomenon called “the Google effect” is widely acknowledged. In general terms, “the Google effect” means people are understanding the Internet as an extension of their intellects, alleviating them of the responsibility to really know anything.
If this seems overstated, consider the following data collected by journalist William Poundstone:
- According to a 2010 poll, a quarter of Americans don’t know from which country we fought to gain independence.
- In 2011, Newsweek gave the U.S. citizenship test to 1,000 Americans. 40 percent had no idea which nations we fought in WWII.
- Another study found that only half of Americans could recognize Thomas Jefferson from a picture, despite the fact his countenance has been on our nickel since 1938.
Results are even more dismal for millennials, the most schooled generation in American history. In 2015, the Educational Testing Service “compared the verbal, mathematical, and digital-media skills and knowledge of US millennials to those of their peers in 22 other nations. The US scores were among the lowest in all categories.” Is it coincidental millennials are also the most technologized generation to date?
We are only now beginning to see the troubling effects of supplanting books and maps with screens and apps. Ignorance of geography among the American populace can have deleterious implications because it can shape public opinion and, potentially, foreign policy. Poundstone reports, “In 2014, as Russian troops entered the Ukraine and America debated how (or if) to react, three political scientists took a survey to see if Americans knew where Ukraine was. Asking people to find it on a map, only one in six could.” This circumstance drove political perception. “The researchers found that, the farther a person’s guess was from the actual location of Ukraine the more likely it was that the person supported a US military intervention in Ukraine.”
Another regrettable feature of the Internet is the ability it provides users to fortify themselves against irksome intrusions from those with different opinions and tastes. Internet technology has made it possible to customize our own individualized world. This situation retards the development of reason and inflates egos. It is totally opposed, for instance, to the scholasticism of Aquinas. The medieval university would horrify most American college students and professors because it was ordered around discussion of disputed questions. Nothing was off the table. Consider the massive temper tantrum thrown by college students after the last presidential election. Those students had been duped by social media echo chambers into believing they are entitled to a world of their own making, as though they could simply command, “Alexa, elect Hilary Clinton,” and it would be done. The minds of millennials, conditioned by years of technologically personalized experience, are easy targets for demagogues posing as teachers who view students’ incapacity for independent thinking as their long-awaited fait accompli.
The Internet makes everything easy, which is one of its greatest attractions. We want things easy. But things easily attainable are often cheapened and neglected. This is why in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero assigns Ferdinand to a period of hard labor before allowing him to marry his daughter Miranda, who has quickly fallen in love with Ferdinand. “But this swift business / I must uneasy make, lest too light winning / Make the prize light” (I.ii.449-452). The Internet makes knowledge swift business won lightly. It removes incentive to learn and know anything by making everything perpetually available. Students are less likely to remember information they believe will be available to them on the Internet. Such an ethos gives to the Internet an unmerited epistemological advantage because it discourages knowledge gained in any other way, such as through literature or contemplation.
It seems apt that the Internet used to be called the World Wide Web. Webs can be quite beautiful when sunlight and dew play upon them. But they are death traps that slowly kill off any living thing that touches them. What happens when kids have electronic devices placed in their hands at the age of two, who before Kindergarten learn, like little princesses and princes, to command an always acquiescent servant called Alexa or Siri, who have flickering screens in front of their faces every time mom or dad straps them into the car seat, who never have to figure out their own way around town when they start driving because an app was invented to spare them that responsibility? What happens is what we see in a Liberty Mutual ad on TV where an infantilized teenage boy needs his mom to call the insurance company because he couldn’t figure out how to change a tire. If ads reflect the culture, then it is clear Google is not making us smarter.
There are also growing concerns about the spike in clinical depression among teens, which happens to coincide with the rise of social media. Baby boomers would like us to believe this is because teens are more open with their parents. As a former middle school teacher I can tell you that’s naïve. Again consensus is unsettled on this issue, but it is not unreasonable to examine possible connections between the rise of anxiety and depression among adolescents and the empire of social media that subjugates them.
The above is not intended to diminish the good work of Bishop Barron. Other notable Catholic leaders, such as Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Mother Angelica, have used modern media to evangelize with great effect. The Internet is here to stay. Genies are notoriously resistant to being forced back into their lamps. Bishop Barron should be commended for sharing his great gift for teaching with the world. The saints in heaven rejoice over one reclaimed soul. Visiting Word on Fire or reading an essay on Crisis each day will not result in a diminished capacity for thought or contemplation. As with so many things, maybe it’s a question of moderation. It is not good that, even in their own homes, millennials and those growing up behind them have been abandoned to a world given to immoderate reliance upon mass media. It is a world characterized by Eliot’s phrase: “distracted from distraction by distraction.” We are creating generations of Pinocchios who are incapable of focusing their minds on any one thing, such as a book or a prayer.
A cautionary analogue for all of this can be found in the Davy lamp. In 1812 a terrible mine explosion killed nearly a hundred men and boys. Sir Humphrey Davy invented new technology that he claimed would provide adequate illumination in the flammable environment of the mines while reducing the risk of explosions. The Davy lamp lived up to its promise. The number of explosions decreased. However, the new technology led to an unforeseen result. With the risk of costly explosions decreased, avaricious mine owners greatly expanded their enterprises. Mines began proliferating which meant more and more men and boys were lowering themselves into the dangerous bowels of the earth to feed the nation’s growing demand for “black gold.” The expansion of the mines made possible by the new technology resulted in fewer explosions, but more deaths from other mine-related illnesses and accidents.
Whatever blessings the tech industry may afford must be weighed prudently against the manifold curses to which it makes us vulnerable.