On The Internet and the New Dark Age

By Daniel A. Freeman |

There’s been an interesting discussion going on lately about the Internet. Some leading thinkers and scholars have postulated that for all the convenience and expediency that society gets from the Internet, we may actually be surfing ourselves into a new Dark Age. While this idea has been discussed quietly in bars, coffee shops and at dinner tables for some time now, the public debate really took off with this recent article Nicholas Carr did in The Atlantic Monthly.

Carr, citing personal experience and a wealth of anecdotal evidence, theorizes that the Internet, with its quick and easy access to endless amounts of information, has created an intellectual laziness that is reverberating throughout our society. He argues that the web, while it may have us reading more, has us concentrating less, thinking less and relying on machines for functions that should be carried out by our brains.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

 

Wired shot back with this piece, which characterizes this criticism as a sky-is-falling approach that is desperate to find a fatal flaw in the digital revolution, whether there is one or not. Author David Wolman argues that those who blame the Internet for the prevalence of misinformation, misconception and intellectual laziness are merely ignoring the fact that these problems existed long before the Internet.

It should be obvious that I side with Wolman—if I didn’t I probably wouldn’t be a blog editor—but this got me thinking about the library community. There can be no question that librarians as a profession have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Internet revolution. The Internet has given us multitudes of new and better ways to serve and connect with our patrons. The Internet has helped us tremendously, and I think most librarians would agree with that even while acknowledging that technology has cost some of us our jobs and forced others to learn a completely new set of skills mid-career.

Frankly, in my corner of the library world, we’re so pro-Internet that I wonder if there is anyone in our profession who might share the sentiments voiced in Nicholas Carr’s piece. So I put it to you, my fellow librarians—how has the Internet had a negative effect on your job? In what ways is the Internet having a negative impact on our profession as a whole?

I know that I, for one, am looking forward to the continuation of this debate.