Is thought dead?

by Joe Ferullo

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The Internet, Twitter and social networks must be killing all nuanced thought. Must be, because very smart people keep saying this.

The latest is social critic and historian Neal Gabler, writing in the Los Angeles Times. Gabler touts the Zuckerberg Revolution (named after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) as the follow-up of the Gutenberg Revolution that was sparked by the invention of movable type and the printed word.

Now, it's true that "Zuckerberg" and "Gutenberg" really sound a lot alike, so it's tempting to make sweeping generalizations about matching the two -- and Gabler does not resist. But he's not alone in sending out a blaring alarm about how the mini-thoughts contained in tweets and Facebook posts are corroding our minds and degrading our nation's ability to figure out The Important Solution to The Big Questions.

Essentially, Gabler argues that our brains are shrinking to fit our medium of communication: if the Internet thrives on short bursts of info-bits, then our brain will adjust, and lose the ability to create longer, more complex concepts beyond "At the dry cleaners. They found my blue sweater!"

Gabler notes that many communication historians agree the printed word changed our brains: we moved from a visual mind (cave-drawing, stained-glass windows) to a printed mind that worked within the more sophisticated and metaphorical realm of writing and reading. So, now, the web is taking that all away -- the final mental degradation that began with the creation of television.

But this kind of critique often seems based on some academic Eden: Gutenberg printed his Bible, and suddenly everyone was speaking Latin again, reading masterworks by emerging philosophers, and writing rebuttals by candelight at home in between sips of meade. This Eden is what is now under threat.

However, mass literacy is a very recent thing -- sure, when only the elites knew how to read, the written word was -- well -- pretty elite. But as literacy spread and grew, so did yellow journalism, penny dreadfuls, and lurid crime novels. (Back in the 1950s, the paperback book "revolution" sparked deep concerns about a generation of readers who would grow up on nothing more meaty than Mickey Spillane.)

The Internet, then, is just like every other form of communication created: some of it is really worthwhile (Slate magazine, the Daily Beast on its better days, and scores of specialized blogs -- like this one), and some of it is really bad (you know who you are). It will all get thrown into that giant combine called the media and each person will have to sift through it for himself. The people who prefer Shakespeare will find good places to go; the ones who -- decades earlier -- loved glossy gossip magazines, dark conspiracy pamphlets, and even Mickey Spillane ... they will, for better or worse, find their places, too.

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