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Why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks (timesonline.co.uk)
19 points by nreece on July 23, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments



This may all be a moral panic, a severe case of the older generation wagging its finger at the young. It was ever thus.

Here we have the modern cultural critic at work: He doesn't just wag his finger -- he deconstructs himself at the same time! So, when I point out that this guy just another in a long line of whining moral scolds, he can claim that he understood that all along! He was just being ironic! Isn't hipster detachment fun -- even when the guy's wrong, he's right!

So, yeah, he's right: This is a steaming pile of Get Off My Lawn. The big clue is the part where he loses focus on the issue of focus (irony!) and starts teeing off on these kids today, who spend all their time on the internet gossiping with each other instead of reading improving books. Even the parodies of this line of argument are older than dirt: Before the Internet it was video games, reality television, cartoons, gangs, pop music, drugs, punk rock, hard rock, progressive rock, Jimi Hendrix, birth control pills, Elvis Presley, beatniks, Buddy Holly, swing dance, movie theaters, the wrong kind of books, jazz clubs, speakeasies, ragtime, billiard parlors, opium dens, all-night poker games, gangs...

Even the interesting part, the bit about distraction, is old news. Distraction is, indeed, one of the modern world's biggest sources of stress, unhappiness and poor productivity, but that is nothing new. This guy accurately notes that concern about information overload dates back to Thoreau's unhappiness with the telegraph and the newspaper -- and I'd bet the Zen Buddhists would be willing to argue it goes back even farther. You're telling me that the Internet is somehow even more pernicious and distracting than leaving the TV on all day, which has been going on for sixty years? That workers in the seventies didn't find wired telephones and intercoms and water coolers and newspapers and muzak distracting? (I guess Demarco and Lister are precogs -- they railed about this stuff in Peopleware before the Web even existed.)

And then, rather than talk about how to ameliorate the information overload problem, the guy throws up his hands and proclaims that we're doomed to a new Dark Age (!). Just as we have been since Thoreau. After all, what important things have happened since 1849?

Being a moral scold is easy work. Each year you write the same essay with a couple of words changed.


I'm not sure the internet is necessarily any "worse" than TV or whatever in this regard, but its threat is more disguised. When you're wasting time with superficial information on the web, you're still using a computer! And there is so much useful information on the web, how could using the web be a bad thing?

On the surface, it appears to be a more productive activity than watching television. It is more interactive, and it does require more skills to get going with it than television does. But once you get past that, it can still all too easily turn into a waste of time.


There was a time when television was considered a valuable source of important information about the world. The idea that TV is intrinsically stupid didn't really have popular traction until Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" speech in the 1960s.

I agree that the web is more subtle, especially today, when the chrome has yet to wear off. But no medium is free from time-wasting. History is replete with people whose reading and writing was arguably "a waste of time". It's certainly replete with artists, musicians, and writers whose tendency to focus obsessively on their hobby was bad for their finances and their health. Ramanujan arguably worked himself to death with mathematics.


I remember back in the 80s there was this trend to outfit schools with a television in every room, as television was going to be some kind of teaching/learning holy grail. Then it was never used for that, and I remember a lot of the televisions going unused.


I thought Ramanujan died because he wasn't used to England weather.


...I should add, I don't think that the internet is the problem, nor is television, nor anything else along those lines. The problem, if it exists at all, is with the users of these technologies. The internet can be used for good, useful things, and for wasteful distractions. I think that some distractions can be fine -- some fun diversions here and there is not wrong -- but the users need to realize when they are letting the distractions take up too much time and reverse the trend.


Well, yeah. Now you're talking like Merlin Mann or the Rescuetime folks -- or, for that matter, a Zen Buddhist. Someone who sees the problem and tries to do something about it instead of merely starting a panic and yelling at some kids.


"One American study found that interruptions take up 2.1 hours of the average knowledge worker’s day. This, it was estimated, cost the US economy $588 billion a year."

There's this myth in America that it's possible to work non-stop for 8 straight hours a day. Distractions maybe unhealthy and negatively impact productivity, but this statistic certainly does not demonstrate that.


I'd get much more done if I could work 4+2+1+1 hours scattered throughout the day (say 9pm-1am, 7am-8am, 12pm-2pm, and 3-4pm). 8 straight is brutal and hardly ever all used.


Maybe my brain has been fried by spending too much time on Hacker News, but isn't there an 'it is' missing from the title?

'Tests clearly show that a switched-on television reduces the quality and quantity of interaction between children and their parents. The internet multiplies the effect a thousandfold.'

If you've got scientific evidence to back up your claims, please link to it. I'd like to know what the SI unit for parent/child interaction is.

I don't like the article much, but has anyone read the book he refers to?


I, for one, would talk to my parents a lot more if they were on IRC.


I thought that as well - that i would talk to my parents more if they spoke via AIM/MSN/IRC. Then they actually got onto AIM and started talking. And I started calling them up (if at college) or going into the other room (if during break).


You say that now. But my mother got Google Talk a little while ago when she was trying to figure out how to use various "web 2.0" sites to stay "with it" and it was frustrating. I kept wishing it was morally acceptable for me to fix her n00bspeak.


I'm sorry but I can't read this article. There are many others that need my attention.


Just reed a book nao an agan. Prblm solvd, k thanks!

Seriously though, I've been hearing similar messages for a while. It's a scary prospect, but I really think the solution is as easy as reading books.

An aside: I used to think that computers would increase literacy rates, as a typing/reading were prerequisites to internet use. But, seeing how many people spend their 'surf time' just watching videos on YouTube I'm starting to think otherwise.


I'd like to add that it's important to read different sorts of books, not just many. I know a person who has a very large (300+) collection of harlequin-style novels that she has actually read. Breadth and quality counts more than volume


I suppose that it depends on how low you set the bar for what is considered literacy.


I think it's a matter of how HIGH the bar is showing itself right now. I mean, upper literature has never been commonplace entertainment, not any more than it is right now. Back in the 20s people weren't all discussing the finer points of Steinbeck and Faulkner. We only remember those guys now and assume everybody was like them - and that therefore we've dropped - but I'd guess we have more people into upper literature now than they had back then.

The problem is that cultures change so rapidly. We have a hundred new mediums presenting themselves every decade, and each of us finds solitude in a different sort. It's natural for some people to prefer texting over literature, just as it's natural for some of us to shun the Internet entirely. I think the Internet gets this more than the literati do. We get that just because fewer people read books doesn't mean that there's a threat of books vanishing altogether. It means that the market gets smaller and more focused, and you get a much cozier reading community. I'd guess that of the students I was with in high school you could get a good 40% to write a decent essay if you needed one - and that's a high percentage, when you compare that with the percentage of people who need to be able to write decent essays in life.

Shakespeare couldn't spell his own name, from the fragments we have of his writing. He wasn't "literate" by the bar this article would like to set. He just came up with play ideas and figured out how to word things vocally. He created what we'd call great literature without the tools that we assume literature needs to get started.

As I said: the Internet gets it. The sci-fi literate get it, too: and no surprise, since the best science fiction writers today are on the truly cutting edge of literature. It's the conservative literati that still doesn't understand that literature changes with every decade, that what's true today might not be in 2010, and that that's not necessarily a bad thing.


A few years ago i read an article that computer games brainwash kids, and that red alert 2 promoted fascism. Its a good strategy, if you want attention predict the end of the world, and stupid people start paying attention to you. The most read news papers are the ones with gossip about celebrities, there is no news here, most people are stupid and use the internet accordingly to their abilities, these are the same people that read yellow press and watch reality TV, its not the technology thats the problem, its the people.


"We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us"




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