When I started writing this article in a Starbucks around the corner from my office, I slipped in my Sony earphones, the kind with the buds I keep misplacing, and opened Spotify to drown out the constant drone of wheezing overpriced coffee-making and the general ambiance of Parisian bitchiness. I think they all hate themselves for being in a Starbucks, or something. Spotify, in it’s usual polite way, reminded me that I’d listened to some Isaac Hayes recently and that I might like the Ohio Players. Seeing as I’m compliant and docile pre-lunch, I started listening. I liked a song. I googled it. Found the YouTube video to Love Rollercoaster being performed live on Midnight Special. I don’t know what the Midnight Special is, and judging by the weirdness of the host, I figured that trying to find out would lead me down a rabbit hole that could change me forever. So I decided to scroll down to the comments. One comment tells me the dance in the video is the Boogaloo. This word taunts me. There’s a silence in my earphones as the song ends. I’m still staring at the word. A coffee-machine wheezes. “Google me” it whispers in my ear.
You, reading this, are a person. And this has happened to you before. The internet, as you may already know, is full of people. People like you. Billions of them in fact. There are also some cats. But mainly, it’s people.
Some people get the internet, and the time we live in, others don’t.
Nick Carr doesn’t get it. Nick, notable internet-hater and luddite, made the case in his 2010 tome, The Shallows, that the internet is making us dumb and encouraging more superficial thought. His Gladwellian non-fiction bestseller case for our dumbing down lasted for 280 pages full of unclickable words (tl:dr). I don’t know about you, but I was already pretty deeply superficial even before the internet. His theory centers around the fact that we’re being rewired without our knowledge at a cognitive level to skip around from the Harlem Shake to a Wikipedia article on 19th century Venezuelan war of independence without taking the time for deep thought. However, Jonah Lehrer, in his review of the book for the New York Times highlights that a 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, found that idle surfing led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, when compared with reading a “book-like text.” This is the part of the brain that manages things like deliberate analysis. We’re not getting dumber, we’re building the tools to get smarter.
Clay Shirkey. He gets it. Sure, he claims, the internet has made producing photos, music, text, and thoughts exponentially cheaper, and created an Instagram-filtered race to the bottom, “eroding cultural norms about quality and acceptability, leading to increasingly alarmed predictions of incipient chaos and intellectual collapse.” But that has always been the case with any technological advance. People flipped out when paperback books came along, with their pulpy promises of low-brow entertainment. He makes very convincing arguments about peer review and collaboration, but I’ll let you go read his piece in the Wall Street Journal for those. What I want to highlight here are his thoughts on the nostalgia of old-men-with-shotguns-on-their-front-lawn like our friend Nick. Their view of the past as a panacea full of people reading Proust in the park is a fallacy. Shirky says that the 80s, the last pre-internet era we can speak of was full of people watching Different Strokes and that that the internet in fact “restores reading and writing as central activities in our culture.”
Anyway, as you may have noticed by now, a huge number of words in this article are hyperlinked. Far more than should ever be hyperlinked in one article. Every other word flashing a dirty smirky smile at you across the bar at 2am. Every single hover over a word pregnant with promise, “If you follow me, I’ll tell you some really cool shit you can use at dinner parties to sound smart”. It wasn’t fun hyperlinking all those words. It took longer than it took to write this damn thing. But if you’re reading this, you’ve stayed till the end. You’ve proven the Carr’s of the world wrong. You’ve made the case that we can love Grumpy Cat AND read 740-words in a row. Unless you clicked away at Boogaloo, in which case you’ve just helped prove that the end of humanity is just a click away. Thanks for that.