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Social Media: Making Us Dumber? (nytimes.com)
236 points by pratap103 on Jan 12, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 107 comments

This is great time to mention one of my favorite books on the media and public discourse: Amusing Ourselves to Death - Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman. In the book, the two infamous dystopian novels of the 20th century (1984 and Brave New World) are compared to determine which one our world most closely resembles.

The two books differ in how they describe the source of the dystopia. It's been a while so please excuse any inaccuracies - in 1984 the world is controlled by authoritarian governments through fear, misinformation, and endless distractions, whereas in Brave New World the world is controlled by an authoritarian government through mind-numbing pleasure and shallow entertainment. The governments in these books both rely on citizens being reduced to their lowest common denominator. I think people during the cold war could most easily imagine, and thus be most afraid of, a world that resembled 1984. The book I mentioned in the beginning of this post argues the view that we should have actually been more worried about a world more closely resembling Brave New World.

Today we are constantly fed a mind-numbing amount (mis)information that we also simultaneously look for because it makes us feel better. Unfortunately, this media barrage also robs us of our attention and ability to critically think about important issues affecting our society. If anyone is interested in reading a book written before the age of social media (published 1985) and exploring these ideas, I highly recommend this one.

I definitely think it looks like a bit of a mixture of both. From what I remember in reading Brave New World, the focus wasn't so much on the authoritarian tendencies of the government itself. The government was authoritarian in the sense that it determined what people would be like through genetic engineering but seemed to basically leave them alone otherwise. Since they were perfectly suited for the tasks that their caste was bred for. Including being perfectly happy in them. For instance the "Betas" didn't want to be "Alphas", and in their mind it was certainly a lot better than being an "Epsilon". They didn't mind being in a lower caste because they didn't think they could handle the responsibilities of being an "Alpha". It is kind of interesting that most of the book deals with the world of the top rung of society and kind of glosses over the world of the lower castes.

Really though we don't need to go to fiction to see what is happening in society. We just need to go to Ancient Rome. "Bread and circuses" was a tactic used by the patricians (elites) to keep the plebeians (masses) appeased. Give people a minimum standard of living so they can continue to live, and distract them from injustices and corruption through entertainment.

May want to check out "Technopoly" by Postman as well. It's got some of the same points but goes deeper into technology in general. It opens with a story from Phaedrus by Plato where a king is arguing with a god over the utility of writing. The god says it's amazing and allows all knowledge to be stored, etc. But the king says the god is too enamored with his invention and can't see downsides like knowledge being decoupled from instruction and loss of memory since everything is written down.

Lesson of course is all technologies have up sides and down sides, but we rarely ever discuss the down sides.

The problem is that the up sides of new technologies are typically immediately obvious, while the down sides are subtle and can take a very long time to make themselves evident.

Example: let's make watch faces that glow in the dark by painting them on with radium-based paint! (Which was a real thing: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radium_Girls)

Up side: everyone can now read their watches in the dark! Hooray! An instantly clear improvement.

Down side: radium is, well, radioactive, so the workers painting the watch faces slowly start having their bones rot and their jaws fall off. It takes a decade for the link to be recognized between these symptoms and unsafe procedures for handling radium-based paint. Nobody really knows how many of the workers employed handling such paint eventually died from related illnesses.

I guess this inspired Stuart Mcmillen with this strip: https://therionorteline.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/huxley-v...

Thanks for the recommendation, I will take a look at it.

This kind of reminds me how I felt when I was reading both those books. I had already seen all the memes about 1984 not being an instruction manual, and it left me kind of confused, because the direction the west is moving towards doesn't really resemble what was described in the book (at least, not yet). Then I read Brave New World and it certainly read like something more relevant to our current situation. Both are horrifying stories though, and it pains me that US, a nation that once prided itself for being 'free' has 2 conflicting mainstream ideologies, both of which call for a bigger government in an attempt to oppress the other side.

I had already seen all the memes about 1984 not being an instruction manual, and it left me kind of confused, because the direction the west is moving towards doesn't really resemble what was described in the book (at least, not yet).

I have often wondered if we aren't a bit inoculated by 1984. "Red scare" and all that, and much of Orwell's work (1984, Animal Farm) was an obvious swipe at the Soviet Union and the like. Apple's first TV ad played on it. We're on the lookout for Orwellian things because we wouldn't want that, now, would we?

Poor ol' Brave New World, OTOH, never got much press. I mean, amongst my middle-aged crowd I don't know too many that have actually read it, but we all read 1984 in high school. So whereas we're all on the lookout for oppressive government actions, we kind of ignore the influences of other aspects of our lives.

Brave new world is not comparable to 1984, quite simply, because ... one is about lack of empathy, the other lack of information.

Memory holing is easier now than in the book.

It's extraordinary how relevant this book still is. Postman was a student of McLuhan, but wrote in a much more accessible style.

Is it not possible we were always this dumb but more that most of us talked less? This isn't beyond the standard "pub talk" but today that "pub" is the online world and published for all to see. Where previously you'd have reporters and sub-editors and editors to publish; today you can just run your mouth off whenever you want and the crowds can all hear.

This sort of thing makes us _look_ dumber compared to the era of print media but maybe together and on average we were always this dumb in the first place but now we just see it better.

This sort of thing makes us _look_ dumber

Context is important; your friends in the pub know when you are joking, or not entirely serious, or making a rhetorical point, or playing devils advocate, or are referencing an earlier conversation, or telling an inside joke, or have just misunderstood something. Random strangers on Twitter read everything as an unequivocal statement. And respond accordingly.

My interpretation of the original comment isn't that context is key, it's that the internet amplifies the kind of extremist speech that wouldn't reach very many people pre-internet. For example: a suburban white supremacist in 1985 might feel isolated and alone, the same person in 2018 can publish their hatred on Twitter & Medium find like minded bigots on web forums.

exactly that but less so "extremist" more so "common". We've managed to forget about what the "common" sort of opinion is like. An opinion poll about the death penalty or immigration is a quick way of seeing that society at large is somewhat detached from what people assume is the "norm" from the world of edited media circa 1990 - 2010.

When the internet exploded that "average" was still glued to the TV and nerdy wasn't cool. Even in the 2000s you still had to run a PC to attach which is still a bar to hurdle. Today though we now have a generation that has grown up with internet enabled devices as a default feature in their phones, consoles, TVs or other formally "dumb" boxes. Now _everyone_ is online and perhaps that is just what we're seeing here as the bar for internet access has completely vanished.

If anything, we are the extremists: I suspect that 90% of the readership of HN was in the top 10% of their high school class, or above. Everything in our daily lives filters out the voices of the other 90% of the world, because for the most part, our friends and the friends of our friends resemble us. This is the social bubble everyone talks about. I just think we consistently underestimate just how powerful that bubble is at insulating us, until we see dramatic evidence in politics or the mass media, or we stumble out of it somewhere online.

Indeed. Earlier today I replied to a comment that said

Perceiving white males to be hard done by is amusing

I guess the poster of that never even considered the white males in former industrial regions. Or worse, considered that they deserved to lose their livelihoods because of their race and gender being "wrong". It's that kind of smug attitude that lead directly to Trump and Brexit.

This is an excellent point. In other words, pub talk taken on good faith, internet talk taken on bad faith.

So as before you would say 'dumb' things to your inner social circle of friends, with an occasional stranger overhearing. Today you can say those same things online, but instead of it just being your friends it's effectively on the public record and everyone can see and comment on what you said.

This reminds me of a story that Clay Shirky told about how one of his students/coworkers wanted to announce the breakup of her engagement. She carefully configured her settings on the FB, then changed her relationship status. But even so everyone knew in real time and she was deluged with questions and messages.

The reason both of these situations are so jarring is because everyone instantly sees this information, where as previously it took a lot longer to filter through the social graph.

People say things now in a social context in real life and then someone takes it out of context to rile up a mob online, making it dumb because it was taken out of context and used against them. As we are all humans most people with the context probably recognize this and are secretly glad they were not the ones targeted, although I doubt most of us want this kind of society.

It seems reasonable to believe that the person misrepresenting is often aware of the context and is disingenuous in their representation. And if not I am not sure why we are giving the stage to people with poor comprehension skills and a correspondingly violent temper.

> 'today you can just run your mouth off whenever you want and the crowds can all hear'

This sums it up. Also worth taking into account the abuse of anonymity. Some people would not speak in the same way to some people in front of that given person or relatives.

I think distance has as much or more of an effect here. Plenty of people are willing to act like jerks under their real names and profile pictures on Facebook and news site comment sections, and it's likely in part because they know they'll never encounter the people they're attacking or ever have to fear retribution for their comments online.

As a liberal that subscribe to The NY Times I wonder why they always have to make these issues so politicized, even when they are making a good observation. The problem they describe, violent reaction to opposing views, seem present amongst all sides of the political spectrum and it does not seem limited to extreme opinions.

The article seems in a very indirect way to make argument that violent reaction to and ostracizing of people that hold opposing opinions is ok when you hold the correct opinions and not when you don’t, and I strongly believe all sides should be held to the same standard of discourse.

> The article seems in a very indirect way to make argument that violent reaction to and ostracizing of people that hold opposing opinions is ok when you hold the correct opinions and not when you don’t

I'm having trouble seeing how you got this impression.

In a case study like this I was hoping for an understanding of how we on the left contribute to a climate where it is ok to be non-factual, as it is much easier to change yourself than others and NY Times audience is clearly the left. Especially since it concludes that everyone "rushes for the safety of their ideological battlements". What are those embattlements? What are the factual nature on each side? My question if it is just taking one example in an ongoing tit-for-tat fight.

Maybe I should just accept that this a case study and every case study does not present a balanced analysis. It will seek to provide one example of a problem and it is up to you to generalize.

How the left contributes to a climate where it's ok to be non-factual?

- When people on the left suggest that a black (or any other) individual has anything other than a statistically non-zero percent chance of being shot unarmed by a police officer. When people on the left say that there is a racial disparity in police shootings, when an honest evaluation of population size, population representation in violent crime, and population representation in police fatalities indicates that is not at all the case.

- When people on the left accuse industries such as engineering for having racist/sexist hiring practices, simply by evaluating the demographics of the workforce...completely ignoring the available pool of applicants.

- When people on the left accuse individuals like Jordan Peterson for "denying trans people's right to humanity," simply for his questioning the prospect of a government-mandated, forced usage of desired pronouns (what would be the first instance of government compelled speech in the western world).

- When people on the left claim that 1 out of 3 women get raped on college campuses by constantly attempting to redefine rape, and that our entire societal structure is set up in such a manner that can be described as a "rape culture."

- When people on the left can talk about a 23% disparity in pay between men and women when the countless studies controlling for job type and performance bring the pay gap to non-existence.

I absolutely despise conservatism, and I have never voted Republican, but to say that the American Left cannot be represented by a climate where it's okay to be "non-factual" is insane. The American Left is increasingly dominated by emotionally charged statements about privilege and marginalized communities, rape cultures, toxic masculinity, cultural appropriation, micro aggressions, safe spaces, victimization and outrage. It's no coincidence that "facts don't care about your feelings" is literally the tagline of the outspoken figure on the right, Ben Shapiro.

The article pointed out that two "liberal" bloggers / journalists retreated to "liberal" tribe disgust, when confronted with a "liberal" that expressed an actual positive values of the alt right. I saw it more as an article about tribalism; in tribalism, cheerleading and re-framing / spin are very important, and it was more this -- not "non-factual" per se -- that this article was discussing.

Though, Steve Pinker as far as I know really isn't a "liberal", so this article is somewhat guilty of the same tribalism. I'm not familiar with Ben Norton, but casual Googlings makes me wonder what exactly makes him "lefty". And, to be honest, tribalism-oriented cheerleading and spin are not something new to social media.

Whether the dominant social media forms exasperates this tribalism though is a good question to me (one this article doesn't really answer). Part of the reason I dislike Facebook and Twitter is that it seems like the form is not designed with nuance and depth in mind. It's all quick status updates or tweets, likes, follows, quick dopamine hits.

10 years ago, there was a strong long-form social media circle (blogs). These were not entirely free from dramas or tribalism, granted, but the format seemed to allow for more slices of political viewpoints than just two. At the very least, in the blogosphere, there wasn't the pure monetary incentives to create "clickbait". Which these days in Facebook / Twitter land, not only includes the usual celebrity fluff and bait miracle-cures and shock stories etc., but tribal oriented junk too ranging from "news" with a tribal framework, to outright falsehoods.

My experience is that the left is less guilty of being counter-factual than they are of censorship. But that's really two sides of the same coin. The contents of the James Damore memo comes to mind. Twitter verified status has become a political weapon to punish people who don't toe the party line. Youtube de-listing, demonetization, and banning.

I think this is less about left and right, and more about extreme elements on both sides arguing for actions supported by rhetoric use of factual statements that are easily questioned and where studies are available that would put their view into doubt.

So you feel that the majority of our national media with its treatment of DaMore, Twitter, and Google are extreme elements of the left? Or did you only mean to refer to DaMore and the banned people on various social media outlets are extreme elements?

Of course some of the things in Damore's memo are easily questioned. But that's not the problem. The problem is that his memo, which is well within the mainstream of accepted modern psychology/sociology was treated like the Nazi manifesto. If it can be easily questioned, then easily question it rather than censor it. And there's no need to put the national spotlight on this poor schlub to try to ruin his life, even if I totally support Google's right to fire him.

I think being inclusive of viewpoints is incredibly important, even if they contain something factually incorrect, so I am not advocating some sort of thought police.

There will always be some fringe elements, everyone has a crazy uncle/aunt, but I do not believe for a second that anything close to the majority is crazy so the desired way to advocate an action is through agreement in the democratic process. If you can't convince and compromise maybe your opinion is not the right on balance for society.

What I am suggesting is an effort to protect the democratic process and that we do not let any group use extrajudicial measures to enforce an action. Anyone that treats it as war needs to see that this has consequences and should not be celebrated.

I'm not sure we're disagreeing, but perhaps talking around each other. The point I was trying to get at is that I don't believe Google represents the extreme left, nor does DaMore represent the extreme right. And that's the problem. Google and the national media are not fringe elements which we might dismiss the way we do with people toting swastikas or hammer and sickles.

There's a phenomenally interesting article that goes into details on this very question: "The Bad News About the News" [1] by Robert Kaiser. Kaiser is a 50 year veteran of the Washington Post having worked as a reporter and editor over the decades. He chose to retire shortly after the newspaper was purchased by Bezos.

There's enough nuance and detail that I think cliff notes would likely just mangle the points made. One related thing I would observe is that there are plenty of level headed articles that try to view things impartially and without bias or prejudice. Yet these articles seem to rarely gain traction and visibility in social media, which is where those all so valuable clicks derive from.

[1] - http://csweb.brookings.edu/content/research/essays/2014/bad-...

Thank you for the link! This one looks interesting.

You make a good point - they appear to make themselves part of the problem, which in my view is the increasing polarization of topics. There no longer seems to be any middle ground in the public discourse, instead everyone is entrenched on their respective poles. It's immensely frustrating.

I hit this hard the other day. There's a TV show I really like called the Runaways. On Hulu, where I watch that show, they seem to constantly run this one commercial cheerleading how great it is that the show is so diverse. I commented on social media that the commercial felt like it was trying to lecture me and has ultimately detracted from my viewing experience. It didn't matter that in the context of this conversation I was talking about how this particular show, which happens to be very diverse, is one of my favorites, the fact that I rebuffed the SJW cheerleading instantly turned me into a Nazi.

> The problem they describe, violent reaction to opposing views, seem present amongst all sides of the political spectrum and it does not seem limited to extreme opinions.

On all sides, sure, but saying that "violent reaction to opposing views" isn't necessarily the result of holding "extreme opinions" seems a bit oxymoronic. Or what exactly do you mean by "violent reaction"?

People often violently overreact to relatively minor social or legal offenses. Like when bad parents who get caught on video get death threats. It's not an extreme opinion that kids should have good parents.

It's a normal and widely held opinion that kids should have good parents, but it's not a normal and widely held opinion that bad parents deserve to be killed or threatened with violence, at least not outside self-defense and law enforcement.

It's not "I believe that fair taxation, transparent government and high standard public services" that is the extreme, abnormal opinion—it's "because you don't, you should be sent to death camp".

In a society where the norm is to value individual security, liberty and bodily inviolability, "violent reaction to opposing views" is necessarily preceded by an extreme opinion. Maybe that opinion only exists in a brief, heated moment, and it's certainly not limited to extremists, but extreme nonetheless.

I think this comment is a bit off base as we are clearly not talking about physical violence. The violent intolerance I was pointing out is the pattern of seeking to ostracize and remove the livelihood of people that don’t agree with your view, or question factual statements used to justify it.

I'm not sure I would call anything that's not physical "violence". There are other words for that: oppression, tyranny, bullying, verbal abuse, corruption, etc.

It seems there's no such thing as objective journalism. Was there ever, is this new, or just worse? Philosopher-based journalism might be an improvement, but sometimes even philosophers seem to be committed to a point of view.

This is an op-ed article, it isn't claiming to be objective or journalism. Yes, there is objective journalism, there's just plenty of crap too. I have no clue what you mean by "philosophy-based," something about logic I'd guess?

Because the editor think it aids the agenda of the paper.

Sadly your view, which is the same as kind, seems to be seldom held by our peers.

It shows how far the US has shifted to the right when the NYT would describe Pinker as a liberal. Twenty years ago his views were considered more center-right (in the US at least). But, I am off-topic ...

The biggest problem with social media is that it massively amplifies radical (and, often ignorant or misguided) opinions. This especially disturbs me, because I sort of helped cause it. As a kid, I wanted the more radical, fringe perspectives to have greater influence in the mainstream. But, in an age when content is free (I.e. paid for by ads), the loudest and most extreme make the most money.

Now, I cringe. There’s little discussion, dialogue, or dialectic - less prefrontal cortex and lots more amygdala and limbic. And, if we think of the PFC as what makes us most human, most intelligent - then yes, we dumb.

But, don’t lose hope. There are still plenty of moderate and reasonable people out there. It’s just that they’re not normally the raucous, crass ones. A rule of thumb for me is to shun the loudest most aggressive voices, because they almost always know very little.

What really amplifies radical opinions is the feeling of exclusion from decision-making community.

When a person feels their opinions are appreciated, they tend to try and play nicer with others. When a person feels their opinion is ignored and silenced, they tend to radicalize and hold increasingly flamboyant opinions.

Compare how hot topic the copyright was when studios insisted they'll get to enforce whatever they lobbied into the laws and won't hear the internets' crowd, and how milder it is today when they had to cave eventually and decrease expectations for entitlement. Even if not many things actually changed.

Groups like alt-right or social justice warriors seem aware that what they advocate are sometimes based upon factually incorrect statements.

I believe these groups are aware that they are fighting for an action through rhetoric that use factual statements that can easily be shown to be incorrect. Further, it seems like they believe better facts supporting their view could be found if their actions were implemented because they insist so much that their subjective truth should be respected to the same degree as real facts that disagree with their subjective truth.

My interpretation is that the awareness of their factual problems is what motivated these groups to develop a pattern of violent intolerance towards anyone that questions it, as people that do not agree with the action would otherwise outnumber them in the discourse and make it harder to implement the action.

There seem to be a synergy between alt-right and social justice warriors in particular, as both narratives need an antagonistic other that justifies why it is ok to be violently intolerant towards anyone that questions their view.

I think most of them are aware that some of their statements are incorrect when interpreted in strict logical sense. But thing is, absolute majority of statements in natural language are either strictly incorrect or internally inconsistent.

Both groups are pretty sure that the core of their beliefs is valid. Maybe fact A is false and fact B is overblown but sum(A, B, C) is still a vector in the direction of their faith. So debunking their statements won't lead anywhere.

You are much better off agreeing to disagree and trying to discuss a middle ground. But that's not what happens in modern society.

I agree, but I think there is a solution that can help us all ask for and fight for proper discourse.

Alt-right and social-justice warriors both have a hard time rejecting objections from people with the right identities. If we created tools that helped crowdsource finding issues in their action and then identifying persons in the crowd with the right identities to highlight those we would be on the right path.

If the crowd in addition to this approach advertisers on the platforms they use to further their message, then we would also reduce their capability to scream loudly.

No leaders, no celebrities, no talking heads.

"The biggest problem with social media is that it massively amplifies radical (and, often ignorant or misguided) opinions."

I have quit social media and not been able to find the words to express what made me leave, I will now just quote this.

Pinker is a liberal, in almost any sense you could come up with, either by present standards, or the standards of twenty years ago.

I don't want to seem harsh, but unfortunately it seems warranted. Perhaps you have a poor familiarity with his work, and with the landscape of political thought, and intellectual culture in general.

Or perhaps you are the type of increasingly common individual that this piece is concerned about... an overly tribalistic individual for whom empirical reality conforms to politics.

Feel free to present your argument, which I welcome. I could be wrong and often am.

However, as an Anthropology major at a top tier university during the 90s, I can say for a fact that Pinker challenged convention (at my university, at least) and pushed the humanities toward a view that a person’s attributes were more the result of biology than social conditions. He also pushed against the prevailing postmodernist and relativist perspectives, among other things. And, although I haven’t read some of his recent work, nor kept up with his public views, I don’t see how you can say that “The better angels” is liberal, given that it promotes markets and a policing forms of strong government.

Unfortunately, lots of internet content pre-2000, including discussion forums, has disappeared. So, I’m struggling to link to evidence of discussions happening at that time.

By the way, your comment is pretty much ad-hominem, and normally I wouldn’t respond to you. But, because your type of behavior is the actual topic of conversation, I figured it was worth it. I find it amusing that you believe me a liberal ...

>Feel free to present your argument, which I welcome.

Sure. You could define a liberal in a number of ways. One possible definition is someone who is "center-left", generally votes for democrats, supports public provisioning of education, healthcare, welfare, and so forth.

Pinker posted regularly on Twitter during the elections, generally supporting Hillary Clinton and opposing Trump.


In a larger context of liberalism, as opposed to fascism or socialism, again he comes out as a liberal with fairly consistent support for individual rights, in both economic and political realms, although regularly modified by a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis... as is typical of liberals going back to Bentham and JS Mill.

None of what you said about human nature is at odds with his political, economic, and social identification as a liberal. It would've been unusual to find anyone of any era, including the present era, who fully denies the concept of a human nature.

Are there any traits that distinguish humans from anything else? If so, there is a human nature.

>I find it amusing that you believe me a liberal ...

I assumed that you were a member of the radical left, and not a liberal. Anthropology, as a discipline, currently has an overwhelming bias towards this leaning, moreso than nearly any other discipline.

You answered to a strawman argument, supporting it even. But its a loosing game for you, because you submit to a dogmatized interpretation that is easy to refute saying nothing would be as black and white as implied by the argument. Parent pretty much implied media presented someone as a strawman, you concord that someone was exemplary for the reduction of an idea, seemingly with the intent to discuss it further, while the parent pretty much suggested to be tired of the discussion.

And you weasel out of the discussion when you suddenly shift to put human nature as a whole into question, just to then shift the goal post to an indefinite plurality of 'humans'.

This is cut and paste from Quora about why Liberals hate Pinker.

>>Pinker has committed an unspeakable sin, at least by Progressive Liberal standards. He believes the Man is born with certain built in modes of operation, particularly mental operation. Call them instincts if you must. In sure Man has a nature. Human Nature.

>>Progressive Liberals and those even further left are committed to the proposition that all of our so-called nature is learned, and that humans are infinitely plastic. Ergo, we can construct a new kind of human who works for the common good, is never "selfish" and never regards the work of his own hands as his property.

>>Naughty Steven. He believes that humans are basic selfish in the sense of being rationally selfish. That will never, never do. Naughty Steven. Shame!

Do you mean "radical" or "extremist"?


radical: characterized by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive. "the city is known for its radical approach to transport policy"


I don't know if they intended to or not, but "radical" is not a direct synonym of "progressive", and isn't always positive. Here's a more complete definition:

-- advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social change; representing or supporting an extreme or progressive section of a political party.

This book comes to my mind.


Sommerville argues that news began to make us dumber when we insisted on having it daily.

Now millions of column inches and airtime hours must be filled with information--every day, every hour, every minute. The news, Sommerville says, becomes the driving force for much of our public culture. News schedules turn politics into a perpetual campaign. News packaging influences the timing, content and perception of government initiatives.

News frenzies make a superstition out of scientific and medical research. News polls and statistics create opinion as much as they gauge it. Lost in the tidal wave of information is our ability to discern truly significant news--and our ability to recognize and participate in true community.

I used to consume news daily, obsessively even when I was younger. I was that addict that used to refresh cnn.com compulsively every few minutes at a stretch. Now, I come to HN and a few other niche sites for 'information' or 'news'. But I no longer visit cnn or NYT as much any more.

Anecdote:. I was at a bar tonight and noticed the tv had the same "breaking news" headline on for three hours. It wasn't breaking news, just news. News that wasn't even that important

It's become vogue to talk about social media in this manner but the problem is much more generalized. Sensationalist news from mainstream/traditional media outlets does exactly the same thing. And the sensitivity around issues of race, gender, sexuality, and so on, is destroying our ability to engage in civil discourse with one another - not just on social media, but even in our classrooms.

Here's an example of what I mean. A couple of days ago I was in a waiting room somewhere and as a result ended up watching a few TV news headlines. Some teacher in Wisconsin assigned her fourth-graders some homework that asked them to provide "3 'good' reasons for slavery and 3 bad reasons", which sparked a predictable uproar:


Unsurprisingly, no one was willing to go on the record to try and defend or even explain the assignment. It's toxic. And yet, I don't think it's racist to try and parse the teacher's intention here (or just ask for a comment from them!) The teacher put "good" in quotes, which is a good clue, and I can certainly come up with "good" (in quotes) reasons for slavery (e.g. cotton-picking is highly labour intensive and there was tremendous demand for raw cotton by the rapidly industrializing cotton industry in England).

That's a far cry from an assignment that says, "provide a persuasive moral basis for the goodness of slavery". But apparently we can't have conversations like this in our society any more, because there's no room for nuance.

As a nerd, like many of you, I like having intellectual conversations with plenty of nuance, in which one gives the people around you plenty of leeway and the benefit of the doubt ("hmm, that sounds a bit racist, but I respect this person - let me ask a question to see what they mean"). It seems to me that the places in which we can have those conversations are increasingly limited. It definitely isn't social media. It's not the workplace. Apparently, it might not be academia, either, although I haven't been in school for a long time and can't speak from personal experience (stories like the one I just shared, though, seem to back up this impression).

We're left with smart, intellectual, nuanced people having hushed conversations in coffee shops or pubs where no one can overhear them, because we're all afraid of how our words might be twisted, misinterpreted, and ganged up on. It's a real shame.

I know where you're trying to go with this and your heart is in the right place, but the example is awful and does not help in the slightest. I have a feeling that I'm gonna get "ugh, replies like yours are exactly the problem, smcl!" but to me asking children to come up with some good side of slavery is up there with trying to find the good side of the holocaust. Whether "good" or "bad" is in quotes doesn't really change that it's a stupendously bad way to approach the subject.

It might be an intellectually stimulating conversation for some, but if it's a conversation only occurring in hushed tones in coffee shops or in private then I think that's probably for the best.

I think depending on the exercise trying to explore the “good” side of the holocaust would be useful too.

The purpose is not to try to list why the holocaust is good, it isn’t obviously, but I can think of at least two exercises where this is useful for a fourth grade class. 1) to use an extreme example, likely the worst in the world’s history, to make it hard or impossible to find positives is harder to think. 2) to try to better understand the terrible situation and monsters that led to the holocaust. Empathizing with psychopaths is important for society to not repeat issues. So trying to find “good” issues may help understand why such evil was perpetrated.

Of course the framing is extremely important and can’t be understood by OP’s post and likely not by ththe tv headline. But my frustration is that people immediately not only judge, but make their judgements widely known, without an understanding deep enough to judge.

Of course, the assignment could have been a horrible facade over racism. I don’t know. I went to middle school in the south and we had a lot of class work trying to excuse slavery on the side. But just based on the headline, I don’t know. And having a headline of “might be racist” is a waste of time. If I could trust media to investigate and only report if it is racism, then that would be great. But as is, I cannot, and it’s much more likely the purpose is to generate views and ad revenue even though there is no story there.

Thus making us all dumber.

OK enough people are replying this way that I'm wondering if this is maybe an American-English vs British-English thing. When you say "find a good reason for <thing-Y>" ... do you mean "Why does <person-X> justify doing <thing-Y>"? If so then we're all talking at cross purposes and misunderstanding each other - but I'd really suggest phrasing because BOY that original version sounds so bad.

We are in agreement re the media angle. This is clearly "Teacher asks dumb question" not "Teacher brainwashing kids with racist propaganda" and is in no way (inter)national news.

It's a lazy use of language, but yes, "Why does <person-X> justify doing <thing-Y>" is the same as "good reason" in some colloquial uses of US English. Furthermore, in US English, just like in British English, there are plenty of class and education factors that influence how someone would phrase the statement in question.

Most educated coastal folks would not use "3 good reasons" in this case, but at least in my experience, in less educated communities in the South it is more likely to be phrased that way. I implicitly assumed that the teacher did not mean "good" pertaining to slavery, but that may be because I grew up in an environment with different colloquialisms than others. Frankly, if I were a sleep deprived teacher just trying to get something done, I could easily see myself making the same mistake and then seriously regretting that it warped my intention.

This is particularly interesting because I think that the use of language in this case actually reinforces the intent people read into the situation. With some people confused as to how this is "racist" because of a different reading of the language in addition to a different moral interpretation around the assignment.

This is a good way of looking at it linguistically. I’m really only familiar with en_us so I can’t speak about U.K. versions.

But when I see good in quotations that usually means that it’s not actually good, but someone says it is. So I don’t know if the context is exactly “why does person x think it’s good” but it seems close and let’s you respond and think about something without actually agreeing it is truly good or the instructor recognizing it is good.

An example may be “describe how anchovies are ‘delicious’” although of course anchovies tasting horrible is in no way close to slavery. But might show how you ask the question by actually biasing that anchovies suck but you’re going to say they are delicious for the sake of thought.

If anything putting good in quotes signals that slavery is not good and biased the discussion. For most topics I think that will yield worse results, but slavery is fine to bias students against. I don’t really care if people keep open minds about slavery.

I think the problem is more how the question is poorly asked. I think one could find economical, political or logistical reasons for the existence of slavery, but that does not change how evil slavery is.

It might be interesting to have an idea of how people could have rationalized slavery as something good and see if the same rationalisation do not persist in our society. But to do so, you have to be able do discuss it, without having the discussion shut down as racist.

Edit: basically what prepend said, since it's much better.

OK but "Why was the Confederacy pro-slavery?" or "How did the Nazis justify their actions?" are different questions than "give 3 ‘good’ reasons for slavery and 3 bad reasons" which was the example given.

I'm not sure the answers to these questions are as stimulating as people think though. I suspect the real reason behind the question given in the example was that the teacher was oversimplifying the language of the question for his/her students to the point where all nuance was lost ... which suggests they're maybe not ready for it.

> I suspect the real reason behind the question given in the example was that the teacher was oversimplifying the language of the question for his/her students to the point where all nuance was lost ... which suggests they're maybe not ready for it.

This is a good observation and you may well be right, although, I've been surprised by what kids are "ready for" in the past. For example, my son was in grade four last year, and his teacher started reading them The Diary of Ann Frank. My immediate reaction to this news was that I didn't think they were ready to learn about the Holocaust, but I did some research and discovered that, in fact, introducing them at that age isn't a bad decision and can be done well.

In any case, I think that your reaction to my comment actually proves my point. I'm not going to say "ugh, replies like yours are exactly the problem, smcl!" because replies like yours are not. You did not, for example, call me a racist. You engaged with me respectfully, I did the same with you, and now we're having an actual conversation. That's because HN is one of the few places where I think productive conversations like this still happen. By and large, we make a conscious effort to engage with one another respectfully, and to be open-minded and open to persuasion.

Even things like accepting that when someone voices an opinion, it's just that, an opinion. It may not always be entirely thought-out. Far better to react to poorly thought-out opinions (of which I have many, I'm sure) with "here's where you're wrong" in a respectful, persuasive way, than what we see playing out in society at large.

Oh totally, I'm continously surprised by what kids are capable of and they're generally smarter they're given credit for. I just thought that if it's not possible to phrase a question or concept because a kid does not have the vocabulary required to understand it or then it's probably not worth it.

Then again maybe I'm wrong and that's why I'm not a teacher :-)

> OK but "Why was the Confederacy pro-slavery?" or "How did the Nazis justify their actions?" are different questions than "give 3 ‘good’ reasons for slavery and 3 bad reasons" which was the example given.

You are right, that's why I said that the question was poorly asked.

> the teacher was oversimplifying the language of the question for his/her students to the point where all nuance was lost ... which suggests they're maybe not ready for it.

Again you're right, since I'm not from the US, I forgot that the fourth grade is for 10 years-old.

> You are right, that's why I said that the question was poorly asked.

Yikes - not sure how I misread or misunderstood that

No problem! ;)

I do agree that 4th grade is too young for such a topic, but perhaps precisely your reaction is what the parent commenter was speaking about. He made a meaningful observation, yet people were quick to jump on a passing example entirely of incidental importance to the point.

Actually, I think 3rd and 4th grade is a perfect time for these types of “easy” moral analyses.

If the goal is to teach kids to think, then you want excerises building critical thinking. Even kindergarten is a good time to start critical thinking on hard topics “Why do you think the police shot those people with a hose?” I remember coming up when taking my 1st grader to the MLK museum.

If the goal is indoctrinate kids until it’s “safe” to understand why things are evil and wrong like slavery, then by all means wait until later. I’m not sure what the right age is.

I disagree that my reaction was exactly what the parent commenter was speaking about. If I said "you must be racist or pro-slavery if you even want to consider talking about this" then it would have been. But literally the first thing I said was that I understand the point, and that his heart was in the right place. The example works against his point - because it's so obviously a bad idea, isn't really worth defending and just confuses things further.

Fourth grade probably is too early for Lincoln-Douglas, sure. This by you makes it verboten?

Please don't act like "some conversations are maybe not appropriate everywhere" is some radical new suggestion, or is in any way like banning free speech.

I would really like to know what exactly is "good" vs good here. And whether the four graders know to distinguish them. It truly is the kind of homework I would not be happy if my child get. Not until they are big enough to real full accounts of former slaves so they fully understand what it is they nuancely argue for here. The nuance here is achieved by ignoring bloody reality of slavery.

"It economically benefits me" is a "good" reason for slavery? Would we analyze it the same for hired assassin for gang? The latter kills less people. Is "good" in your meaning "egoistical"?

I don't see much space for nuance here and can imagine just about million topics with true moral grey in them.

The drama of the Internet is that it has promoted the village idiot to the bearer of truth

- Umberto Eco, on Social Media

To trust information given by someone I trust is probably in my hard wiring. I don't feel dumber because I reacted to shared information. However, more than ever, I try to question the validity of the content and won't go beyond a sensational title if the source is questionable. I used to trust content, but now I take deliberate, mindful steps to question it. At the least, social media has become more exhausting because of this.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would introduce friction to sharing media. It is far too easy to share false information. Further, information that bubbles to the top is rife with bias and fortifies a bubble.

Ideas worth experimenting:

1. Make the decision to share more salient. Prompt the sharer with a question that forces a moment of reflection. For instance, "if we replaced the author's name with your own and your reputation were at risk, would you share this?".

2. Replace the crude upvote/downvote mechanism with something more nuanced. Separate upvotes from downvotes. Prompt the voter with a list of reasons why he/she voted accordingly. Make voting history public.

> If I could wave a magic wand, I would introduce friction to sharing media

Even better, suffuse everyone with that great skepticism you speak of. Unfortunately, your suggestions are infinitely more practical.

Unfortunately, those suggestions are just as impractical, because maximally incontinent sharing is maximally remunerative to a platform which monetizes user engagement.

Yes, they are impractical for those platforms that monetize maximal engagement.

I just did what I wanted to do since a very long time: deleted my Facebook company page and my personal profile and added all the facebook domains to my /etc/hosts sinkhole[¹]

I can finally breathe again.

[¹] https://github.com/jmdugan/blocklists/blob/master/corporatio...

No, you're already dumb and social media is just bringing it out.

We are getting dumber. Social media is simply a mirror.

I’m pretty sure it’s just revealing the dumb, at scale.

It just make it is easier for extremists of all sides to find each other and build echo chambers to strengthen their ideas.

Now this article is a bit hypocritical as every journalist and news media out there is also on social media and use it as a communication and advertisement channel, just like like everyone else. NYT and co love Facebook and Twitter when it helps them bring in paid customers.

It is also spreading the dumb much faster. Used to be everyone would have dumb ideas but they would be different ideas. Now the dumb ideas converge really fast around the latest global outrage.

A single widespread dumb idea is more dangerous to democracy than a million dumber localized ideas.

The other day I started reading a book and fell asleep almost instantly because it was so boring.

So instead I started listening to a lecture on YouTube and I fell asleep almost instantly.

So then after that I opened that Instagram explore page and was engaged for hours.

Social media is definitely making us dumber. It's 15-60-second hits of all the good parts of everything and that's it.

No context, no substance, just the good stuff.

I think that using an example of people misinterpreting and then spreading something without having familiarized themselves with the original sources to claim that social media makes us dumber is pretty dumb.

>That’s because the pernicious social dynamics of these online spaces hammer home the idea that anyone who disagrees with you on any controversial subject, even a little bit, is incorrigibly dumb or evil or suspect.

I see some merits in this article and I agree with certain parts up to a certain point, but the portion I quoted above is actually more troubling to me. There are lots of people who refuse to believe basic, empirically-proven concepts about the world and social media is merely revealing the ignorance of those people. Celebrating it or saying that everyone has a valid opinion (despite that opinion being based on something false) is even more harmful than the conflict spurred by disagreement, in my opinion.

Anti-vaxers are a bugaboo here. When PZ Myers mistakes Steven Pinker for a fascist because no one has the interest or the attention span to grasp an argument that takes eight minutes to make, we have a real problem.

So the singularity is approaching even faster!

Why doesn't the opinion piece link to the youtube video it talks about?

Does anyone have a twitter timeline archiving tool? I get some major FoMO when it comes to not checking twitter.

There are a bunch of twitter to RSS tools. Here’s one I played around with a while ago, https://twitrss.me/

I actually prefer reading twitter via rss. There’s no missing out, and you can organize by topics, user groups, stuff like that.

Thanks for the help!

Selection bias? ;-)

surely, "Social Media Are Making Us Dumber"

[tongue firmly in cheek]

NYT requires a digital subscription.

...while Twitter and Facebook are free.

... and none of them are good.

And they require almost all articles to be posted on HN. I have a feeling majority of their (click) traffic comes from HN.

It would be nice of there was a limit on how many articles from same domain can be posted on HN. Nytimes articles in my humble opinion are listed here too often. Or a rule that you cannot post paywalled content. It's becoming quite frustrating when you click a nytimes link.

Maybe we need a browser extension to show $ sign next to digital subscription links.

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