I Thought the Internet was Supposed to Make Us Smarter? What Happened?


The internet has been billed as a great equalizer, bringing information and the promise of improved education and knowledge to all. The results so far aren’t quite what we expected.

This is on my personal blog rather than Ask Leo! because it’s more of an opinionated rant than it is useful education. 🙂

It has and it hasn’t

Amazement & WonderI don’t want to downplay the massive positive impact of the internet. True to my gushy little Ask Leo! graphic, I do experience amazement and wonder every day at where technology has brought us.

As I wrote on Ask Leo! On Business,

“The protestations of grumpy old men to the contrary, the internet is all about connecting people. Rather than being isolated, we use it to connect with people physically and virtually, across the street or across the planet. We’re more connected today in more ways than ever before.”

It’s truly amazing, and wonderful, and awe-inspiring, and so on and so on.

And yet.

It doesn’t take much time on social media these days to realize that there are a lot of stupid people out there.

I mean seriously misguided, illiterate, unthinking, inconsiderate, loudmouthed idiots. It’s truly frightening at times.

It’s tempting to assume this is all simply related to the current political environment, and the fact that in the U.S., we’re in the run-up to a Presidential election. But it’s much, much more than that. People that match some or all of the adjectives above can be found expounding on any topic from politics to health, from issues of global import to the incredibly mundane.

And here’s the kicker: “they” think that we’re the seriously misguided, illiterate, unthinking, inconsiderate, loudmouthed idiots.

It turns out it’s totally a two-way street.

The promise of equalization divides instead

The internet – and particularly social media – has provided fertile ground for people who share interests and ideas to find, interact, and support each other. Birds of a feather and all that.

That’s a good thing, in many ways, but it also sets up an “echo chamber” for each such affiliation: a virtual place where opinions and ideas only serve to support and confirm existing opinions and ideas. On top of that, any new information – via that partly-fulfilled promise of unfettered access to information on the internet – is filtered through those opinions and ideas.

The result? Confirmation bias to the extreme. We only hear what we already believe, further confirming those beliefs… whether or not they make any objective sense at all.

“Extreme” is the operative word. If there’s one thing we’ve seen more of in recent years, it’s “extremists”. Be it religious (Islamic or Christian extremists), political (right or left wing extremists), or even health-related (anti-vaxxers and anti-GMO extremists) extremists are in the news and on social media.

And each has their own little echo-chamber in which to feel righteous and, most important of all, right, to the exclusion of any dissenting ideas or opinions.

Is there hope?

So, great, if there’s all these echo chambers around and only accepted ideas are allowed in, how the hell do we educate all these seriously misguided, illiterate, unthinking, inconsiderate, loudmouthed idiots?

To be honest, I don’t know.

First, realize that shaming doesn’t work. Making fun of the stupid doesn’t make them any less stupid; it only serves to make us feel somehow superior.

What that means is every funny meme, quote, or story you share on social media cleverly pointing out just how misguided, illiterate, unthinking, and inconsiderate these loudmouthed idiots are will not, in any way, change a thing. If anything, it makes things slightly worse, as it rebounds within your own echo-chamber, reinforcing whatever it is your group of like-minded and obviously intelligent thinkers think.

The go-to word is usually “education”. Something along the lines of “if only we could teach them The Truth, then they’d understand”. Often, those social media shares and impassioned discussions are often intended to be that education. Unfortunately, most are rejected out of hand by the very audience we want to educate;  most never leave the confines of our own echo chamber.

Education would be awesome. But you can’t force education on someone who sees no need and doesn’t want to be educated. That quickly becomes proselytizing and is accepted about as well as <religious denomination or political party> knocking on your door to enlighten you as to the awesomeness of their ways.

Look in a mirror?

Maybe … just maybe … the approach might be to be open to education ourselves.

One of the characteristics of extremist thinking is to reject opposing opinions without thought.

Don’t do that.

Don’t be a knee-jerk extremist. Think, instead. Listen to information outside your echo chamber. You might learn something.

Be open to the idea that you – the intelligent thinker that you are – might still be wrong. And, to be clear, “right vs. wrong” isn’t even what it’s all necessarily about. You might not be fully informed. You might learn nuances about your position that you hadn’t considered. Look outside your own echo-chamber. Perhaps you’ll encounter something that might influence your position – maybe strengthen it, maybe not.

Even if you learn nothing that changes your mind, you might learn that some of those seriously misguided, illiterate, unthinking, inconsiderate, loudmouthed idiots … aren’t. Oh, sure, some most certainly are – but not all. Remember, they’re in their own little echo chamber too.

Some of them might even be worthy of a little respect.

Even if they are wrong.

37 thoughts on “I Thought the Internet was Supposed to Make Us Smarter? What Happened?”

  1. I think these people have always been around and the easy communications through the internet have enabled them to connect. Fortunately they seem to be in a very small minority, even though they are very noisy. The scarier thing for me, has been finding out through Facebook that a relation has some odd ideas about herbal remedies, despite being a qualified pharmacist. something I didn’t expect from a well educated person, who relied on science for her employment.

    • Maybe it was through her education that she can come up with these odd ideas about herbal remedies. Who better, because of education and training, to have an opinion on that subject?

    • I don’t believe in the efficacy of herbal products or any type of CAM. I don’t say that because it aligns with my personal beliefs, it is because it aligns with my doctors personal beliefs. Maybe if I lived in China it would be a different story.

      • Terry says:

        I don’t believe in the efficacy of herbal products or any type of CAM.

        Where do you think at least 75% of our current medicine originates from?
        True the are less efficacious then in purified, concentrated form but they are the origin nevertheless.

    • You’ve made Leo’s point in spades! Your mind is entirely closed to another point of view because you are “educated” and “rational” and believe you know everything you need to know.

      Prescribed medication almost killed me more than once. Due to serious, potentially life threatening side effects from prescribed medication by licensed MD’s (multiple doctors), I researched herbal medicines and have successfully used them to control a very specific and potentially life threatening issue with no side effects. And, it’s less than 1/10th of the cost of Big Pharma poison.

  2. I just love that Leo has written about this, however, I must disagree with Neville when he says that it is a small minority of people. The truth is that something is going terribly wrong with upcoming generations. I believe the cancer begins in our schools and colleges and has been festering in our society for decades. I believe the narrowing of young people’s horizons is intentional, and starkly reflected in social media and the comment sections of news articles and blogs. Critical Thought is being rejected in our educational system; as is instruction on Civics, Capital Economics, and huge swaths of American and World History.

    The end result is we’re churning out generations of drastically uninformed youth. Oh, they can do C+++ and Project C programming alright, but ask them what system of government we have, and they draw blanks. It is utterly horrifying. As soon as I realized what was happening in my kid’s schools – I pulled them out and put one in a carefully vetted private school. The other, I Home Schooled until I could afford a private school.

    In this amazing age, we have all the information of mankind at our fingertips, but our youth is wasting it on Facebook ego walls and pathetic tweets. And then, we have Twitter… Now there’s a sign-post of the times… A website that restricts all communications to one (1) sentence? Attention spans are already so short, and they’re trying to reduce communication further down to one sentence…?

    News flash: To be really good at anything… to really have masterful command of any subject – YOU NEED TO BE A COPIOUS READER! Yes! Long articles from all sorts of authorities that you extract pearls of good information from. Yet today, I can’t get my nephew to stop looking around the room and have a meaningful conversation with me, because it isn’t happening in 256 colors, in accelerated 3D, at a million miles per second… By the way, he is a mathematical genius who walked out of his third year of college because it bored him. He is now an electrician, miserable, and with few great prospects. They are killing scholarship! God help us.
    Thank you Leo. Where are schools and pop-culture are failing our children, we need to step up and make a difference.
    That much, I hope we can agree on.
    Titus Corleone

    • I must agree with at least some of what you have said. The cancer begins at home before school age. Children begin learning as soon as they can open their eyes and look around. But, our young parents have not learned that they should be making a serious effort to teach their children at home as much as their little minds can hold. If we taught them at home as we should, they would be much better prepared for school when it begins.

      Then when school begins, the disease gets worse because the students are not taught to think. They are taught only to remember what the book says regardless of whether it is right or wrong. For example, a teacher asked a young pupil who discovered America. The student told her it was the Indians, but the teacher would not accept that answer even though it was correct. She said, “Johnny, that is not what your book says. Columbus discovered America.” (Even though the Indians were already here when Columbus arrived.) Students are taught to NEVER question what the textbook says.

      So, the generations we are producing are not uninformed. They have the information. But they were never taught what to do with that information. They were never taught to think, never taught to question anything that does not seem right. Sure, they are wasting it on the Social network sites. What else should we expect when we did not teach them the necessities early on?

      Yes, they are killing scholarship. But this begins at the very top. Our government does not want smart, educated people. They are too hard to control. They want a lot of dumb sheep to follow one after the other over the cliff.

      And, speaking of boredom, you may want to tell your nephew that boredom is a definite sign of an unused mind. I must admit to having only an average intelligence, but I have never in my 71 years been bored. As someone said long ago, we should use our heads for something other than hat racks.

      • Even two thousand years ago people thought that the younger generation was not as good as their own generation. I just do not believe that. Younger guys and girls may be different from ourselves, okay, but that does not necessarily mean they are heading in the wrong direction!

  3. As Neville says, these people have always been around. But pre-internet there rants were mostly restricted to the nearest pub or bar. Now they broadcast to the whole world. And other ignorant, prejudiced people broadcast right back. Why intelligent and sensible people pay them any attention is beyond me.

      • Leo, I believe this is one of the best articles you have written. It certainly is one of the best I have read anywhere.

      • Let us distinguish between the fact that some people are not or wish not to be educated from the fact that there is a lot of dirt and hate thrown on the net. You cannot have a meaningful discussion with someone of this kind. The crucial feature of the internet that allows all the poison to be spread publicly is its anonymity, the fact that the communication is not face to face but from some bush that these people hide behind. Yes, such people have always existed, or rather, such sides of people’s psyche have always existed, but never before has it been possible for thousands of cowardly anonyms to poison the air this way. In a civilized society with some morale anonymous letters used to be thrown away and ignored. Remove the anonymity of the web and most of the acrimony will go away.

  4. The Internet just makes people more of what they are already, methinks, because they can exist without anyone knowing who they are and there are no consequences for behavior. In my 60+ years on the planet I have learned that, as Neville said, those people have always been here. All anyone needs do is cruise around YouTube just reading the comments regardless of what the video is about, to see what too many of the online general population is like. It’s stunning at how nasty, hateful, and ignorant so many posters are. And many are obviously young so there appears to be another horde of these cretins coming up behind who have zero parental or other supervision or guidance, not only online behavior, but how to be a decent human being. What really concerns me is that this darkness is obviously growing in them so why would anyone imagine that ugliness will remain behind the keyboard and not spill into real life?

  5. As Ron White says, “You can’t fix stupid.” You can give out more information, and try to fix ignorance, but stupid is to the bone.

    To support what Neville said, I was a newsgroup moderator for Usenet, and followed a lot of other groups as well. Flame wars were just as bad then as a lot of the stuff now.

  6. The way I see it, those divides have always been around. In ages past we couldn’t see them and didn’t understand them, so we just went to war to try and obliterate them. Which, of course, didn’t work out very well.

    Now modern technology and especially the internet have brought them all out in the open, and despite the chaos that causes I think it is a VERY good thing. Having all the divides out in the open forces people to (eventually, and for some VERY eventually) stop and listen a little bit, and and to start asking the very questions you are asking. And when we do that, we start to realize that those divides are not nearly as big or insurmountable as we thought.

    Another thing the internet has done is to connect us all together despite our divides. Now it is almost impossible for connected nations to go to war with each other, because our economies and every other aspect of life have become so deeply intertwined. It is mutually assured destruction on a whole new scale. And that too, is a very good thing in my opinion. That forces us to start talking with each other, and listening to each other, and to start finding real solutions to the divides.

    • Wow, you’re really an optimist. I haven’t noticed anyone listening to anyone.
      Have you tried recently changing someone’s opinion by citing …you know…like…facts?

      • See, that’s the very problem in a nutshell, Mike. When it comes to people, there are no facts. There are only PERCEPTIONS of facts, and everybody’s perception is different. Because of that it is indeed a rare occurrence that facts change anyone’s mind, for as strange as it seems two sane and rational people can have completely opposite perceptions of the same “fact.” And, if you take the time to really listen to both people, you soon discover that in their own way they are both right.

        As someone later in this conversation has noted, it is only when we turn our attention to understanding the person, instead of the disagreement, that we can begin to make progress in resolving the real issues involved. And yes, I have seen that happen many, many times. It doesn’t happen in the news or within the extremist rabble that make all the noise, but it is happening more and more among the quiet majority. And that is why I am indeed optimistic about the state of the world and of humanity.

        • I find your view refreshing, John. Even if you’re dead wrong, your views can influence those to stop being so negative. In theory, if all negative disappeared, then everything would be positive, which in turn would make your posts 100% right (but that would be just a side-effect then).

          This made sense in my head. I hope it does to everyone else now that I’m releasing it into the wild. 😛

  7. This is my opinion on this subject. I like to read, a lot. I read opinions that are counter to mine. It helps me to understand differing points of view. It helps me to prepare an argument. And as Leo stated, sometimes it changes my opinion.

    The younger generation today only learns of news through small packets of information. Because of places like Twitter, younger people are only reading headlines and thinking they are getting the whole story. The news media knows this and twists the headlines to suit whatever agenda they are promoting.

    The younger generation is being poorly prepared for life by the people they spend the most amount of time with, teachers and professors. They coddle the kids and teach them about safe spaces and bad words. Everything to them is some version of an -ism. Everyone has to be a victim of some sort (unless you are a white, Christian male – game over for you). Because these teachers and professors are teaching the younger generation to be self-absorbed, to be the ultimate ‘ME’ generation, the younger generation automatically dismiss any point of view that does not resonate in the “echo-chamber” they are programmed with.

    The other issue is that no one argues with facts. It is how a person feels that is important. You cannot argue feelings. If I ‘feel’ I have the right opinion, even without facts, then how can you argue me? This is why the whole anti-vaxxers and the pro-AGW crowds cannot be reasoned with. Even with mounting evidence to prove otherwise, it is how they ‘feel’ and any statement made against them hurts their feelings. I have deleted friends from Facebook and Twitter because they argue on feelings instead of fact. With one post, I shared a meme that was important to me. A friend went on and called me stupid and insulted me and was trying to say I was smarter than the meme. I went into a long email as to why I support this position. He learned that I actually had an opinion based on facts. So instead of having a dialogue, he attacks me personally and insults me. After I sent the email, I deleted him. He has been a friend for 30 years, but sometimes, they just have to go.

    I question everything. My girlfriend laughs all the time as I research something to see if it is true or not. I teach my children to not take everything they hear or read as gospel. As they grow older, they will become informed citizens and be able to avoid the trolls. We need to move away from the sound-bites, the meme of the day, Twitter, and begin having conversations again.

    Sorry it has been so long, but I do truly believe if we are to evolve as a species, we need to find a way to shut off.

    • Darryl (or was it your other brother Darryl? – sorry I’m incorrigible)

      You said: “I question everything.” I think you are correct! I do the same and I encourage everyone I come in contact with to do the same. We have been feed misinformation starting in kindergarten or first grade when we are instructed that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and having such a guilty conscious- confessed to his father. I’m pretty sure the people that taught that were not lying, they believed it themselves, but it is an example of some of the, more or less benign, bullshit we are constantly feed.

  8. “When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both of us will profit.” Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (Pg. 1023)

  9. In a word, “Bravo”! This is an important contribution and I am not surprised that most of the comments so far have been supportive. Not surprised because I assume most of your readers are a more intelligent that the yahoos whose ignorance is paraded far too often in all sorts of media.

  10. Excellent article by Leo. And, it is almost as though the first person to respond, Neville gave us an example of this confirmation bias on purpose. Leo says, “if only accepted ideas are let in” such as perhaps conventional belief in the supremacy of big Pharma, how can we allow a scientific look at the benefits of herbal remedies that have sustained humans for hundreds of thousands of years.
    Leo suggest being open to education. Neville, have you considered discussing with your relative why she feels these herbal remedies have a place? Perhaps, as Leo says, “You might learn nuances about your position that you hadn’t considered”.
    Perhaps she is “worthy of a little respect”.
    The beauty of the internet is the ability to quickly find information, many from very credible sources.

    Two other factors about “inconsiderate idiots” commenting. One factor, is that it is so much easier to comment, rather than in the pre internet days of having to write your comments on paper, get a stamp and envelope, and mail it to the editor of a local newspaper it took time. And, the “unthinking, inconsiderate, illiterate” responses never got past the editors in the comment section. Now folks can have their arguments online, in real time, with the world as their audience.

    The other factor is that people can post anonymously. This allows them to say what they really think, without being concerned about politeness, or other social norms. They don’t worry about diplomacy, nor caring about opposite opinions, only putting their opinion forward in the strongest possible terms.

    • “…people can post anonymously. This allows them to say what they really think…”

      Never forget that ‘trolls’ exist on the interwebs too. They treat anonymous posting as some sort of social experiment. For example, a heart warming article about a loving couple who loses their baby to some terrible disease might have a troll posting, “Good, the world needs less sickly children” … or some other insensitive remark, all just to get people to post a response (called feeding the troll), to which they reply with more insensitive remarks, ad infinitum.

  11. It is for this reason that I subject myself to Fox News periodically. I occasionally see a valid different viewpoint. I regularly disagree, thereby reinforcing my original views. And I learn tolerance, since I cannot afford to throw any more bricks through TV sets.

    • I do the same thing but with ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, Associated Press, and NPR. I’m regularly reminded how all of these are just as biased as Fox (just more to the left) and they’re also older so they’ve all had much more influence on the US population. It really should force you to ask, why do I believe what I believe? Am I really rooted in good information?

  12. Hi Leo,

    I started reading the comments and let it go. Rather than talk about who’s out there, I’d rather respond to your rant. First off… of course I agree. We’re all looking for confirmation of our beliefs. I feel confirmed that you believe what I believe. And I think you and I agree that one doesn’t educate by sharing objective facts. But perhaps we disagree that education in any form is the way forward. Whenever I’m talking with someone, whether in an argument, an agreement or disagreement, I separate the issue from the person. For example, here’s someone telling me the earth is flat. OK. The issue is, Is the earth flat or not. Can’t win the argument because of confirmation bias. But who is the person? How does he or she feel? Is s/he afraid? Angry? Does s/he feel alone, confused? I respond to the person. “I see you have a strong belief that vaccines are making folks sick. Does that frighten you?”

    I find that bypassing the issue and focusing on the person leads to fascinating discoveries. Often people are focused on weird ideas because it enables them to be seen. If I tell you space ships are flying around my head you’ll get up in arms and ‘educate’ me that I’m wrong. And all the time you’re arguing with me, I exist.

    So I go beyond all the stupid ideas, conspiracy theories, weird beliefs, … let them go, and focus on what’s happening emotionally with with the guy in front of me. “What’s goin on with you, fella?”

  13. i think of it more as ANTI-social…

    in any group of people, 1 or more, i find almost everyone is busy with their face in their “god damned” device…

    the video, https://vimeo.com/70534716, speaks of more loneliness in today’s world

    while there may be much more quantity, as stated, there is much less quality – REAL conversation

    go to a “coffee shop” and almost everyone – is not there, but in some virtual world, people do not meet new people there

    people spend more time – avoiding contact in the organic world

    while there may be more virtual contacts, less organic connection – as pointed out there’s no reason to have anything to do with anyone with whom you disagree…

    yin and yang – we are enjoying many of the benefits of technology, however, in return, we are losing what it means to be human, how to survive without the latest technologies, we are poisoning the air, water and land and always – “technology will save us”…

    technology has moved from serving mankind to mankind serving technology, it really is a form of – idolotry!

    and, who controls the technologies?

    on my older laptop computer, i decided to try windows 10 – now i need to waste my time to figure out how to get around in it

    at first glance, i’m learning that the defaults assume giving up all control in order to be a typical – consumer, i.e. the product which is sold

    and to use any of the technologies, one must sign away his/her life…

    enough said

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