Friday, July 09, 2010

The Internet-Versus-Books Debate...

In a very thought-provoking piece today in the New York Times, David Brooks argues that while the internet is good at helping people become more knowledgeable and well-informed, books are still better at making people more "cultivated".

What does this mean? Well, he begins by citing a number of research studies highlighting that 1) children reading books leads to significant educational gains, and 2) broadband internet access is not necessarily good for kids and may actually be harmful to their academic performance.

If this is the basis for his argument then it's not hard to question those assumptions and cast doubt on everything that follows. For starters, internet access and book ownership are hardly ever mutually exclusive - usually kids with broadband read books too. Having both would seem to render any conclusions about one or the other rather murky.

Second, as Brooks himself responsibly points out, there is also contrarian evidence that suggests that playing computer games and performing Internet searches actually improves a person’s ability to process information and focus attention.

Look, I'm not one of the zealots who believes the internet is a panacea for all educational shortcomings, and certainly don't deny its ability to reduce attention spans. But it's still an enormous leap to say that having internet access is actually harmful to academic performance. After all, does anyone really believe that their children would be more empowered for school and improve their chances of going to college by getting rid of all the computers in their home?

Where Brooks makes a more valid point is in his assessment of what it means to be "cultivated" and how to get there. He begins by reviewing the differences in approach that are involved in the internet-versus-books debate...

What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference... Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation...

And in a terrific description of the benefits of reading in general, he goes on to say...

The literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.

It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.

This is a potentially fabulous way of looking at the current dynamic. However, caution should, as always, be exercised here as well. Lost in this entire discussion is the importance of WHAT people are reading online.

And, yes, that matters.


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