Thursday, October 14, 2010

A great writer and a controversial subject

The controversial subject: is the Internet dumbing us down? In the respect that it allows us to selectively choose material that pertains to our interests, instead of exposing us to broad range of topics and issues.

The great writer I'm referring to is Mark Jenkins, a travel writer with numerous awards, currently a contributor to National Geographic and author of three books. He's from my adopted hometown, Laramie, Wyoming and I got the wonderful opportunity of hearing him speak last night at a local writer's event.

So we've been hearing for decades now about how T.V. is dumbing us down, and now, the Internet? Mark's argument is that people are turning more and more to the Internet as their source of information, rather than newspapers. To paraphrase him, "If your interests are in horses or snowmobiling, the Internet allows you to selectively choose articles that pertain to your interests, and you are less likely to seek out a broad range of news or issues such as provided by a newspaper or news show."

In other words, while the Internet provides us with access to the broadest range of information we've ever had before, at the same time it allows us to stay focused on our narrow area of interests.

His observation hit me head-on because I don't subscribe to a newspaper and I don't regularly watch TV news shows. I get most of my news from the Internet (usually just a quick scan of headlines) and then I focus in on what's of primary interest to me - writing and publishing-related material.

On the other hand, I'm also a voracious book reader, so while I may lose some of the broad exposure to the world via news articles, I feel I gain it back via a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. For instance, no series of news articles could have apprised me of all the cultural richness and issues related to Afghanistan and Pakistan as Khaled Hosseini's books the Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, or Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea.

What do you think? Is the Internet helping us narrow our focus, instead of broadening our minds?

Postscript: "news" is hardly ever objective, of course. Mark has a great article called Seeing the World As It Is, and I had to include this excellent quote:

Americans by and large don’t really understand what’s happening in other countries. And when you go out there on your own two feet and have to buy food from the local market, and have to find of a place to stay and talk to locals, you start to understand how the world is put together. Because if you just stay home and read your local newspaper, you’re not going to have a clue about the rest of the world. The news here is very slanted, and is not representative of the complexities and passions of the rest of the world.


  1. A good reminder that other cultures/countries put the pieces of how they live together differently.

    Must say I still miss walking to my local grocery store a couple times a week. Oh, that grocery store and the butcher shop and the greengrocer, and the bakery in Wales in spite of the rain.

  2. I guess that to be able to view world events globally, to enrich one's cultural experiences positively then really we should be as broad and as open not just to information but to quality information whether via the tv, internet and in print. How we find what is quality information or not - depends on education and in fostering a literate and numerate community. I know it all sounds wishy washy but if all you read is the local paper and not bother with world events - then of course your sense of vision is narrowed and your world is smaller and tinier - and the outside world that you sort of know exists in the periphery of our vision just becomes scarier. That can't be good! :-)

    Take care

  3. I miss having the newspaper but even those were biased. I also read a lot and hopefully that helps! good thoughts

  4. I think it can work both ways, but I see the internet's role in information-sharing as a positive thing in general. My middle school stepson can do a report on Thailand and not be limited to World Book Encyclopedia's 6 page summary like I was--we had a very small school library :)

  5. This is a great post! I think the internet is broadening my interests. I don't subscribe to a newspaper since I pay for internet and can receive even more news from there at no extra cost; I get the NYT sent directly to my inbox everyday for free.

    The thing is, people who don't read world news on the internet probably have never read the world news section in newspapers either. It's better for people to read something they're interested in than not read anything at all. So no, I don't think the internet is "dumbing us down."

    And I agree with you about reading books. I've been introduced to many different ways of living, locations, centuries, and people through fiction!

  6. Oh to be very young again and suspect no evil. Remember when the newspapers and the nightly news could be trusted? Now we are older and know that things can be slanted; underreported; moved to page 10, rather than page 1 when it goes against the editor's politics. I wonder whether it might be better to simply contemplate a question like this instead of look for an answer. Often our "answers" are not truths, but simply a destination that we have reached. In some ways, by frequently asking these types of questions, we hold ourselves "open" and able to understand truths. It sounds deep, I know, but just maybe it is a great place to be.
    Thanks for asking,

  7. I still get a newspaper and read several on-line. I DO NOT watch ANY news from the big networks, they are all too slanted on way or another. I do listen to NPR (radio) which seems to be the last bastion for unbias news. There is also Link TV.

  8. Yesterday I went to the Florida Museum of Natural History. I couldn't find what I wanted on the Internet. Imagine that! So I used an old-fashioned way of learning and it brought the past to life in a way that online work cannot. And I bought a ton of books, only one I had access to online.

    I think I'm a little off-topic, so let me bring myself around and say that the Internet usually keeps me there. I often read something that distracts me from my research before I begin it. You know like who is divorcing whom and why should I care?

  9. I definitely think the internet has the ability to dumb us down--if we let it. If we actively seek out ways to improve and broaden ourselves, I think it's less likely but it takes effort.

  10. Margo, I linked my blog to yours today. Please let me know if it's not okay.

  11. Definitely something to think about. It's true that it does allow us to filter our knowledge quite selectively, but at the same time, it allows access to so much knowledge that might be difficult to get otherwise. I've learned so much about publishing on the Internet for free. So tricky. It's a complicated issue. Perhaps the key is to make an effort to seek out other news sources outside of the Internet.

  12. I love this question/topic! I don't think it is dumbing us down, although it may well make us lazy - the world is at our fingertips! But it's also opened the world up to us - it's as available as we could possibly want.

    Also: I read the newspaper as well as browse the internet and they are very different experiences. I think it's a tragedy that more people don't read the papers, but then our local weekly paper died and a new one sprung up - only on-line. And it's fabulous! So, I think we have to stay open minded. :)

  13. Kay: do you mean Wales, as in Wales, UK? Did you used to live there?

    Old Kitty: I agree about being open to information but then again how do we determine if it's quality information? Especially concerning politics, for instance!

    Terri: newspapers are biased, but at least they make me aware of certain things I wouldn't be aware of otherwise, and then I can always do more research if I get the sense they are giving a slanted view!

    Jess said: oh yes, thank goodness we don't have to rely on out-of-date encyclopedias any more. I love Wikipedia as starting place for research!

    Laura: I'm not sure if the Internet is broadening my interests, though it is expanding my knowledge of trivia! You can get the NYT via internet for FREE? Wow, where have I been? And I agree with it's better for people to read something they're interested in than not read anything at all.

    James: I really like your response: "Often our "answers" are not truths, but simply a destination that we have reached." that's very quotable truth!! Also agree with "In some ways, by frequently asking these types of questions, we hold ourselves "open" and able to understand truths."

    Bish: I agree with you about news from the big networks, they are all too slanted on way or another. I think NPR is better, but I'm still suspicious. I listened to a NPR discussion on British health care and EVERYONE they interviewed had a positive experience? ReALLY?

    Kathy: good point about other news sources feeding you useless information like who got divorced and so forth. The Internet makes me jump around so much though!

    L.T. Elliot: good point about "letting" or "not letting" the Internet dumb us down. We got to keep questioning the stuff that gets feed to us.

    Carolina: yes, indeedy, so thankful for all the writing and publishing resources on the Internet! not to mention the networking!

    Susan: you might have pinpointed it - making us lazy, versus dumbing us down! Or how about just plain distracted???

  14. It depends on the person. We all use the internet differently. Depending on our interests and intellects, we'll seek out different resources and activities.

  15. Great thought-provoking post!

    I agree that the international news is very incomplete in America, and there's far too much coverage of sensationalistic domestic stuff.

    What we almost never hear about on the news is the persecutions that people face around the globe, based on their race or religion. That is the real story. But if we talked about that on the news, then we would see that maybe the USA is doing something right, and maybe our freedoms are still worth dying for.

    Personally, I like being able to filter out all the trash news. :-) I hardly ever watch the news on TV. I do enjoy the newspaper every now and then, but I like to control how much negative stuff can get into my head. The internet is perfect for that.

  16. Wow, this is a tough question! The skeptic in me says people may be more likely to see headlines on the internet, when they would have never read a newspaper before.

    So glad you found me on the Writers Alley! :)

  17. Hi Margo. Just to let you know, I passed on a 'Sweet Friends' blog award to you. You can collect it at my blog if you would like to pop over. x

  18. I never thought of that before, but it makes sense. I think for me, it's broadening my horizons rather than narrowing them, but I never was a newspaper or news show person anyway.

  19. I don't subscribe to newspapers, either. I listen the the news during dinner and that's about it.

  20. That is a really interesting point. I never looked at it like that, but it's true. I get less news than I used to because I am selective about what I look for. I do try to stay informed though overall. I think as intelligent human beings (as writers tend to be) we fill in those gaps through other sources. But it is something to be conscious of for sure!

  21. Even before the Internet, I really only paid attention to what I was interested in and watched what I wanted. I think it is the same, but just a different medium. Great topic.

  22. I'm like you, I don't get the paper but peruse the headlines on the internet. Mark may have something here. However, I think we are also a more informed era because we have limitless access of imformation at our fingertips. Those that seek find... immediately. So we get more and faster. I know you and he realize this, but I just thought I'd throw that out there.

    Love what he said about our news being slanted. Is it just me or is yellow journalism still alive and well? :o)

  23. What a great post! I used to read the paper religiously but have long since canceled my subscription and at times it feels like I'm living in a bubble.



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