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New Existentialists

How not to study the “web generation”

By February 19, 2015February 19th, 2018No Comments

Is constant immersion in digital technology changing kids’ brains for better or for worse? A recent Pew poll of experts that is now getting a lot of media attention determined that: 55% of people polled thing it’s for the better, and 43% think it’s for worse.

Well, gee, that was helpful.

The inconclusive results aside, is just picking a lot of people who have written on the subject and polling them really the best way to get a handle on as complicated and treacherous a question as whether the internet is changing the cognitive processing of the young in a meaningful way, and (if so) the kind of impact it’s having?

Because I’d like to suggest that it’s not. Especially when many of the “experts” are “experts” precisely because they made their names by already having settled opinions about this stuff. In effect the Pew poll asked Clay Shirkey “Do you think Clay Shirkey is on to something when he talks about digital technology?”

The Pew poll is really just a publicity grab by getting big names in internet research to toss a few quotes into a hat and then declare they’ve learned something about head size. But it also illustrates just how difficult it is to address this issue in a meaningful way. Human nature might be changing right under our feet … or it might not. How do we get a historical view in the present moment? What do we do about it?

There aren’t easy answers to these questions, which is a problem for media outlets on deadline and scholars with book contracts, because ambiguity doesn’t sell. Yet the fact remains that even at its most determined, human nature is constantly a work in progress because human existence is always of this moment. People can be studied in all the same ways biologists study cell structure and physicists study particles, but we cannot be understood that way: we literally change our minds as we go.

To suggest that we don’t – or we can’t, to argue that human choice isn’t sufficient to change human nature in a significant way, is exactly to suggest that the internet won’t be able to change all that much; human nature under that scenario is basically locked in. To say, on the other hand, that we can change so much so quickly is to acknowledge that there can never be settled answers to these questions, let alone accurate predictions about what-the-kids-will-be-like eight years from now.

Questions about human nature can be asked – and even answered. The literature of psychology and philosophy both are filled with such treatises. What they require, however, are an acknowledgement of complexity and a depth of attention that no publicity-stunt survey can approach.

Indeed, a fascinating examination of the impact the web is having on “the web generation” was recently written by Polish writer and commentator Piotr Czerski (translated by Marta Szreder). Challenging and provocative – it’s also expressly qualitative and phenomenological. These are the approaches, done well, that take you furthest into human nature, internet or not.

Take a look at some excerpts below. Whether you disagree or not (I personally tend not to), it’s far more evocative than the usual suspects giving their usual soundbytes.

— Benjamin Wachs


We, the Web Kids


Brought up on the Web we think differently. The ability to find information is to us something as basic as the ability to find a railway station or a post office in an unknown city is to you. When we want to know something – the first symptoms of chickenpox, the reasons behind the sinking of ‘Estonia’, or whether the water bill is not suspiciously high – we take measures with the certainty of a driver in a SatNav-equipped car. We know that we are going to find the information we need in a lot of places, we know how to get to those places, we know how to assess their credibility. We have learned to accept that instead of one answer we find many different ones, and out of these we can abstract the most likely version, disregarding the ones which do not seem credible. We select, we filter, we remember, and we are ready to swap the learned information for a new, better one, when it comes along.

To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others. Should we need the details, we can look them up within seconds. Similarly, we do not have to be experts in everything, because we know where to find people who specialize in what we ourselves do not know, and whom we can trust. People who will share their expertise with us not for profit, but because of our shared belief that information exists in motion, that it wants to be free, that we all benefit from the exchange of information. Every day: studying, working, solving everyday issues, pursuing interests. We know how to compete and we like to do it, but our competition, our desire to be different, is built on knowledge, on the ability to interpret and process information, and not on monopolizing it.

There is not a trace in us of that humble acceptance displayed by our parents, who were convinced that administrative issues were of utmost importance and who considered interaction with the state as something to be celebrated. We do not feel that respect, rooted in the distance between the lonely citizen and the majestic heights where the ruling class reside, barely visible through the clouds. Our view of the social structure is different from yours: society is a network, not a hierarchy. We are used to being able to start a dialogue with anyone, be it a professor or a pop star, and we do not need any special qualifications related to social status. The success of the interaction depends solely on whether the content of our message will be regarded as important and worthy of reply. And if, thanks to cooperation, continuous dispute, defending our arguments against critique, we have a feeling that our opinions on many matters are simply better, why would we not expect a serious dialogue with the government?

We do not feel a religious respect for ‘institutions of democracy’ in their current form, we do not believe in their axiomatic role, as do those who see ‘institutions of democracy’ as a monument for and by themselves. We do not need monuments. We need a system that will live up to our expectations, a system that is transparent and proficient. And we have learned that change is possible: that every uncomfortable system can be replaced and is replaced by a new one, one that is more efficient, better suited to our needs, giving more opportunities.

What we value the most is freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of access to information and to culture. We feel that it is thanks to freedom that the Web is what it is, and that it is our duty to protect

( Piotr Czerski, translated by Marta Szreder)