[UTKSIS-L] [Air-l] How is the Internet bad for us?

Charles Ess cmess at drury.edu
Fri Jun 24 14:10:23 PDT 2005

Chris Heidelberg wrote:
> However, the future of research will be just that
> electronic based research with electronic citations because of the economics
> of maintaining libraries and the costs of books, especially textbooks and
> research based books.
Um, you may well be correct. But at the risk of sounding excessively
critical, this also sounds very much like much of the rhetoric that
characteristically accompanies new technologies, especially in the United
States - in my experience, the culture most likely to embrace new
technologies uncritically.
As an example, U.S. folk largely accepted genetically modified foods without
much of a question mark, while several European countries (Denmark, Norway,
Austria) organized consensus conferences to determine whether or not these
should be introduced into the food stream and market (with a resounding 'no'
as a result).
The latter do _not_ automatically assume newer is necessarily better or
inevitable - but open to critical evaluation, especially as a function of
democratic governance.
The point is not to say that one is better than another - I prefer the more
critical/democratic approach, but my European friends often look with envy
at the U.S. where, in Hofstede's terms, our low uncertainty avoidance (=
willingness to take risks) means precisely that we innovate and diffuse new
technologies at a rather brisk clip.  Both are good.

But beyond the potential fallacy of self-fulfilling prophecy - underneath
this I also hear at least an economic determinism, again, characteristically
North American.
Lots of countries and cultures make choices - for anything ranging from food
and wine to quality of books - that are not fully constrained by economic
efficiencies, but include other values that frame economic considerations.
You're certainly correct that print-based media will continue to be
expensive - but this is by itself not a drop-dead argument for the
inevitability of electronic media.  It is conceivable - whatever one may
make of the values matrix that results in such choices - that both
individuals and cultures will continue to prefer certain media, despite less
expensive alternatives, simply because they are valued for any number of
A simple example is water - bottled water in the U.S. was considered a
namby-pamby European luxury some 30 years ago, and now is a mainstay of U.S.
culture, even though it's far more expensive (and usually better) than what
comes out of the tap.
More recently, people my age will remember that in the 1990s, arguments
similar to yours were made to declare that distance learning and the virtual
university would eliminate "bricks-and-mortar" colleges and universities
within ten years.  For one thing, the proponents got their economics wrong -
the costs of the former turned out to be much higher than most anticipated.
But it also turned out that, for better and/or for worse, people -
especially traditional-age students - _like_ the educational (and
extra-curricular) experience provided in real-world, embodied settings - and
are indeed quite willing to pay a premium for it.

> This current discourse reminds me of the concerns by
> teachers during the 1970's when I was in grade school and parents and
> teachers complained about the use of calculators, and now nearly every math
> and science class requires excessive calculator usage because of the element
> of time. My point is that students should have the fundamentals of great
> research and practice it; however, we all need to recognize that when Google
> finishes its work it will simply be too easy and practical not to fully
> utilize electronic services. The more important key may be that students
> properly give credit to sources and that the sources be "approved" by the
> professor. Davis is an excellent person to teach the basics.

I'm not sure I have a quarrel here - but I would add a caveat.  Yes,
calculators, etc. came in - and I believe it's clear that basic math skills,
including the ability to do simple math in one's head, or even with a piece
of paper, went out, as many of the teachers and parents worried it would.
Albert Borgmann writes perceptively on this, I think: a feature of modern
technology is to make things easier for us on the surface of use - by
relying on increasingly complicated technological systems underneath -
resulting in a "de-skilling" in many ways.  Kids who can velcro their shoes
may no longer learn to tie a simple knot - and the cashier who grew up with
calculators apparently cannot figure out (this happened the other day) that
four grapefruit at $.50 each total to $2.00. (I'm not making this up.)

Of course I want my students - not to mention, little ol' me - to have
access to the latest and greatest databases and search technologies for
their research; but my observation (as someone who has taught freshman
almost every year since 1980) is that even with rising standardized test
scores, every year my students are less and less capable of doing very much
_without_ electronic aids.
So I worry about confident predictions about what _will_ happen in the
indefinite and as-yet-to-be-chosen future - especially when these seem
(perhaps I misread you here) to _not_ worry about the consequences, not of
_complementing_ the use of traditional print-based scholarship with
electronic counterparts, but of replacing the former with the latter

thoughts and comments welcome - I'm sure I'm wrong here in important ways -
and happy weekend,

charles ess

Distinguished Research Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies
Drury University
900 N. Benton Ave.              Voice: 417-873-7230
Springfield, MO  65802  USA       FAX: 417-873-7435
Home page:  http://www.drury.edu/ess/ess.html
Co-chair, CATaC: http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/catac/

Professor II, Globalization and Applied Ethics Programmes
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
NO-7491 Trondheim, Norway

Exemplary persons seek harmony, not sameness. -- Analects 13.23

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