Is YouTube Making America Stupid?

[Peter Suderman] Susan Jacoby, following up on this Times Online piece, seems to think so. Right now, she says, there is "a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism."

Jacoby has joined the ranks of a growing cohort I think we should call techno-moralists. They run basically the same game as the moral scolds who shriek every time Quentin Tarantino or Eli Roth release new movies, or Rockstar Games puts out another edition of Grand Theft Auto. But instead complaining that culture is being debased by particular imagery, their complaint is that new technologiesparticularly the internetare causing the downfall of Western Civilization.

We saw this recently with Doris Lessing, for example, who in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech intimated that computers and the internet are rotting our brains. We hear ominous warnings that text-messaging teens are "losing very natural, human, instinctive skills" to a steady stream of  communication via 160-character blips. Thanks to a combination of technology and laziness, American kids, we're told, are "dumber than dirt."

But are we really headed for an electropocalypse heralded by whatever's in this week's Best Buy flyer? Somehow I doubt it. Text messaging for example, seems to have made kids more comfortable with writing, and some evidence suggests that kids are actually growing more literate. Meanwhile, on the violent imagery front, violent crime amongst youth is down since 1993, when violent video games like Mortal Kombat began appearing.

Now, I'm not naïve enough to think that it's all sugar plums and roses. New technologies do cause changes in the way we live, and some of them will probably be at least partially negative. Shorter attention spans might become the norm, but so, I suspect, will greater ability to process larger amounts of discrete information. Memorization will decrease, of course, but ability to link and organize facts will probably increase. As video becomes more dominant, strong writing skills may not be as prevalent, but the ability to communicate in the grammar of filmsounds, images, spoken wordswill grow as cheap high quality video cameras become the pens and notepads of the next generation.

So yes, as new technologies insinuate themselves into more and more lives, there are and will be trade offs, but Jacoby just ignores them. Instead of actually addressing the challenging and complex ways technology is transforming society, she's chosen simply to be offendedwhich, as far as I'm concerned, is an anti-intellectual stance if there ever was one.