Wising Up about Dumbing Down

This blog is devoted to the impact of the Web and other information technologies on companies, not on culture. But partly because it’s the holidays and partly in response to Time’s declaration that the Web 2.0-enabled ‘You’ is the Person of the Year, I wanted to relax the boundary just a bit and discuss one of the persistent criticisms of Web 2.0 (and one I’ve also heard made about Enterprise 2.0). This is the idea that the profusion of online content is leading to a ‘dumbing down’ of our culture and/or society.

First of all, let’s acknowledge that there really is a sea change going on. Web 2.0 is a revolution, not an evolution, in content availability. Cheap gear has made it easy to generate multimedia material, and the Internet enables instantaneous and free worldwide distribution. Web 2.0 is the opening up of that distribution platform to just about everyone. This is a legitimate discontinuity, and it doesn’t feel like Time’s Person of the Year was undeserved

The question is, is this development to be welcomed or decried? The decriers most common worry is one of dumbing down — that Web 2.0 is yielding a sea of bad online content that threatens to drown the good.

There are, of course, many types of bad online content. Most of us would agree on what the worst is: it’s child pornography, hate speech, ideology-based incitements to violence, and other material that repels most people and makes suspect not only the producer, but also the consumer. If you saw a co-worker browsing a Web page full of this stuff you’d call the police or, at the very least, never have lunch with the person again.

The dumbing down argument is not really about this worst content, so let’s leave it aside and concentrate on Web materials that instead of being appalling are, well, dumb. It’s important to acknowledge up front that there are many types of dumb content.

First of all, there’s the stuff that that appears to be the product of a truly feeble mind. As the introduction to Time’s Person of the Year story put it: "Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred." Like most of us, I’ve many times stared slack-jawed at my screen, amazed that someone took the time to click the ‘comment’ button, type away, and pass the CAPTHCA, yet couldn’t find the time to acquaint themselves with any linguistic, grammatical, or cultural guidelines for self-expression.

Another category of dumb content is that which suffers from really poor production values. Grainy YouTube videos, blogs that ignore principles of spelling, punctuation, and layout, cell phone pictures taken at the point in the party when the keg’s nearly empty — they’re all out there, in large amounts.

A third type is online material that shows people doing things that you find pretty dumb. One of my colleagues is always calling me into his office and showing me YouTube videos of driveway mechanics who do things like build turboshaft engines at home. He finds this stuff fascinating. I find it profoundly uninteresting. Even though my friend and the guys in the videos are clearly very smart, it all seems pretty dumb to me and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to watch it.

I’m even more mystified by the popularity of lip sync videos. This seems to me to be the last stage of a descent into what Malcolm McLaren presciently called ‘karaoke culture;’ endless recycling and re-consumption of cultural products, like bland pop songs, that weren’t that good to begin with.

So by my own definitions there’s a whole ocean of dumb content out there, and more being added every day. And I’m pretty confident that the same is true for any single person’s definition of dumb; I doubt that anyone’s tastes are so broad that they’d enjoy most of what’s being contributed to the new Web 2.0 platforms.

The important question is, so what? What are the negative consequences of this rising sea of dumb content? There are a few possibilities here. 

One is that the dumb stuff could crowd out the good stuff, taking up all the available capacity. But since it’s free to contribute to virtually all of the Web 2.0 platforms I can’t see how this could be happening. Storage and processing are now so cheap that it’s feasible for YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Blogger, Gmail, Friendster, etc. to let us participate for free. It’s easy to lose sight of just how remarkable this is. If you have access to a connected computer, you don’t need to have any disposable income to contribute to Web 2.0; financial constraints have simply vanished. So your content becomes part of the Web, whether it’s dumb or smart and whether you’re rich or poor.

Another pessimistic possibility is that with all this content available it becomes impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff — that the huge volumes of dumb stuff impair our ability to find what we want. But think how many mechanisms we have navigate to the Web, including the Web 2.0 portion, efficiently. There’s Google, of course, and the more I use it the more convinced I am that search is now the dominant navigation paradigm. Google’s main search engine returns results from Web 2.0 platforms like blogs, Wikipedia, and YouTube, and the specialized blog search beta is customized for the blogosphere, as are technorati and bloglines.

Most Web 2.0 platforms also include both tags and extensions, which are pointers to other content of interest. Extensions can be automatic (as with Flickr clusters) or human-based. Usernames are a simple example of human-based extensions; if I see that mikestopforth and I have bookmarked a lot of the same Web pages using del.icio.us, I’m interested to see what other sites he’s come across. Del.icio.us lets me peruse his collection (it also lets him keep some or all of it private.).

Finally, there’s the lunch table. A lot of conversations there start with "Did you see / hear / watch / read about (something on the Web)?" My human network, in other words, helps me navigate the digital one.

So the proximate threats from dumb content — that it crowds out the good stuff, or makes it harder to find — don’t seem that severe. But what about the vague, scary notion that the large amounts of dumb content are corroding our intelligence, judgment, or critical facilities? That they’re attacking our cultural immune systems and lowering our resistance? That they’re impairing our ability not to find good content, but to recognize it?

There are a few responses to this argument. The first one that occurred to me was to compare the Web and Web 2.0 to TV in this regard. And it’s clear to me that the Web has a long, long way to go before it matches either TV’s penetration into American life, or its banality. FCC Chairman Newton Minow got it just about right in his famous 1961 speech:

"When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you — and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland."

The entertainer Ernie Kovacs summarized this state of affairs beautifully with his quote: "Television – a medium. So called because it is neither rare nor well-done."

A second response to the current-media-are-making-us-dumb argument is to point out that it’s as probably as old as any form of media. I won’t even try to summarize quotes from across cultures and across centuries about how bad things are getting; suffice it to say that there are a lot of them. People of much education and refined taste have always been sneering at the vulgarians at the gate, and predicting that they were about to overrun the citadels of culture. And yet somehow there always appear new generations of people with much education and refined taste, and new citadels that need defending.

But defending against homemade turboshaft engine videos? Some people actually like those, find them highly entertaining, and learn from them. And I imagine that many friendships, professional relationships, and even communities have been formed on the back of Web 2.0 content that I find dumb.

In addition, who exactly needs to be defended against lip sync videos? Sure, they’re dumb. But is there any evidence that they rot your brain or make you incapable of doing or enjoying anything else? What harm are they doing? If it weren’t for them, would we finally be working through The Canterbury Tales? I seriously doubt it.

I want to be clear that I’m not making any version of the post-modernist argument that distinctions among ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of art and culture are false distinctions. I deeply believe that some cultural products are more complex than others, and so require more concentration and preparation to appreciate. Shakespeare, in other words, is more complex than Borat.

What I don’t believe is that the Globe Theater is going to be converted to the Sacha Baron Cohen Multiplex any time soon. I don’t, in other words, think that we’re about to lose our ability to differentiate complex products, or our desire to engage with them.  Pre-Internet technologies have given people and societies plenty of opportunities to succumb to banality, and to create and consume only cultural junk food. We haven’t completely given in to this temptation, have we?

To believe in Web-enabled dumbing down you have to believe that something about the current sea of online content and the new content generation tools is eroding two very deep-rooted human capabilities: the desire and ability to create complex works, and the desire and ability to consume them. I don’t think Web 2.0 is anywhere near that powerful.

Let me end with a couple very sharp quotes.  The writer Jonathon Franzen introduces his collection of essays How to be Alone with a mea culpa:

"I used to be a very angry and theory-minded person. I used to consider it apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn’t share his particular faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times. I used to think that our American political economy was a vast cabal whose specific aim was to thwart my artistic ambitions, exterminate all that I found lovely in civilization, and also rape and murder the planet in the process."

Franzen describes how he needed to leave this "prison of angry thoughts" in order to wrestle with something truly important: "the problem of preserving individuality and complexity in a noisy and distracting mass culture."

It’s true that Web 2.0 tools are increasing the levels of both noise and distraction in our culture. But that’s not all they’re doing. They’re also helping lots of people preserve and further their individuality. And if they’re not already, they’ll eventually start yielding complex and important work.

One of my heroes is The New Yorker‘s longtime movie critic Pauline Kael, who had the gift of discernment.  She cared nothing for any pre-established categories of film (action, art-house, independent, foreign, etc.), trusted her own judgment, and always wrote with insight, clarity, and punch.  In her review of "The Road Warrior" (which she called ‘terrific junk food’ ) she talked about why she went to movies:

"to experience all the worlds that all the hacks and craftsmen and artists who worked in the movies could bring into being."

Web 2.0 is empowering all kinds of creators:  hacks to be sure, but also craftsmen and artists.  Shouldn’t we be truly excited to experience the best of the worlds they’ll put up on the World Wide Web?  

Happy Holidays!