Monday, May 26, 2008

Is the Internet Generation Dumb and Dumber?

The recent extensive media coverage for Mark Bauerlein's book, The Dumbest Generation, indicates to me this whole subject has touched a nerve—and isn't it refreshing to have the subject of literacy come up in the national discourse? (It's a nice break from non-stop celebrity cellulite sightings!) As we've discussed here in the last few entries, this subject deals directly with the impact of young people reading less, and the consequences this shift is having on American society and culture as a whole.

I think Craig Wilson of USA Today got it right in this funny column.

Now Newsweek has weighed in with this article on whether the "Internet Generation" is really dumb and dumber than previous generations.

I think the Newsweek folks got it all wrong. It's not so much that kids can't access information in an instant with a quick Wiki search, more than it's the fact that they're wasting their time on the Internet socializing and watching YouTube clips. (Are they hanging out at or at Facebook, MySpace and I'd argue the bulk of time spent online by the youth of America is wasted with the inconsequential and recreational, the fleeting and meaningless. (It's fun, but so is eating cotton candy.)

I think the real danger that The Dumbest Generation points to is the fact that we're losing our common culture. If 30 out of 30 middle schoolers can't tell me anything about Rip Van Winkle, David and Goliath or Pandora's box, then we're losing the common cultural touchstones that we use to communicate—touchstones that you're not likely to learn while posting photos of yourself "shredding" on your MySpace page.

Of course, I still have to read the dang book! (And here I am "socializing" on the Internet!)

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Cognitive Surplus and the Idiot Box

If I could get all the hours back that I wasted watching Hogan's Heroes as a kid, I could use that time to go to medical school. Twice. And walk/swim around the earth eleven times.

Regular visitors will know that I consider TV the anti-book. And it is. So it was with much interest that I read a truly hilarious column by Mark Morford on the San Francisco Chronicle's website. In it, he discusses getting sucked in by the tube in relation to NYU professor Clay Shirky's notion of the "cognitive surplus," which he defines as all that leftover brain power we are blessed with, but collectively fritter away drooling in front of the idiot box. You can read Mr. Morford's funny column here.

Shirky calculates that Americans, as a whole, spend about 200 billion hours a year in front of the tube (see above reference to frittering). The number is mind boggling. But, he argues, the web is starting to eek out a tiny sliver of this time, and he thinks that this still-nascent technology will soon unleash a new, participatory revolution that will change the course of mankind and the conceit of "free time." We'll see. But it's a cool idea: those billions of hours of "passive" time will slowly evolve into more active, participatory, brain-activated time. You can watch a fascinating 15-minute video of Mr. Shirky discussing the "cognitive surplus" here.

(I should note that Mr. Shirky seems quite a bit more sanguine about the future of the web and its prospects for the human race than does Mr. Bauerlein, whose book, The Dumbest Generation, I discussed in the previous post.)

Oh, I also read an interesting, but, I believe, somewhat overly optimistic, article on Newsweek's site about the explosion in YA (Young Adult) novels. My beef with the story was the lack of numbers/facts/statistics. Although this category of book has certainly seen an uptick, the numbers I've seen indicate that overall teen reading is going nowhere but south. Could it be that a small pool of avid-reading kids are just reading more? Hmmm. Either way, I was bolstered by the mere idea that reading may be considered a vital part of "hip" youth culture. You can read it here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Internet Reading vs. Reading Literature

The notion that kids may be reading less is often considered not such a bad thing because they're using the Internet more these days. Aren't they reading on the Internet? Why doesn't that count? What does it matter what they're reading, as long as they're reading, right?

First, a few numbers to consider:

According to an NEA study, between 1997 - 2003 home Internet use soared by 53% among 18- to 24-year-olds. From 1981 to 2003, the leisure reading of 15- to 17-year-olds fell to seven minutes a day from 18. What's more, 58% of middle and high school students use other media while reading. So, apparently, when kids report that they're reading, they're often also watching TV, playing video games, instant messaging, emailing or surfing the Web. Consider that by 2003, children were cramming an average of 8.5 hours of media consumption a day into just 6.5 hours—by multi-tasking.

So what's the big deal? Kids can do more than one thing at once; they can chew gum while texting! Isn't that a good thing in our ever more complex and technologically focused world?

But according to a new book, called The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, youngsters are not spending their time learning on the web, reading Wikipedia articles about the finer points of Greek architecture or the root causes of The Great Depression; they're watching YouTube videos of guys riding scooters down stairs or saying "hi" to friends on MySpace and FaceBook. The professor suggests that "kids are using their technological advantage to immerse themselves in a trivial, solipsistic, distracting online world at the expense of more enriching activities—like opening a book or writing complete sentences."

The professor may have a point. Younger Americans do seem to struggle more than ever with writing coherent sentences, and many have difficulty carrying on an intelligent conversation—at least that's my experience.

I found out about this interesting book by reading a review of it in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. You can read it here. I've ordered a copy from the library (ordered it online while listening to music and sending text messages!), so I'll give you the scoop once I get my hands on it.