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Another aphorism about youth and technology: If you truly believe all information is at your fingertips, you are less likely to really dig for it–or learn how to dig for it.


A long absence — i had to let the election and the last month of campaigning speak for itself. A nice rationalization, eh?

At any rate, I was recently at a panel looking back at the Web component of the 2008 election. Much of the discussion centered on how Obama could transition his use of Youtube, social networking, etc, from campaigning to governing. Hey look! It’s a presidential radio address on Youtube! [media swoons, populace¬† yawns]

It’s taken me a while to figure out exactly what I think about this, but here it goes. I think the transition from campaigning to governing, whatever form it takes, will be a big disappointment. Leave aside the difference between a focus on one goal, the election, and the more diffuse tasks facing a government, and chew on these:

First off, the people pushing for more electronic government rely too heavily on technology as a force for change. Culture always has and always will play a bigger role, and it is much harder to identify cultural forces than it is to hold up the latest shiny gadget. I’m not sure the culture of governing is apt to change just because of online videos and twitter. Never underestimate the power of bureaucratic inertia. If and when bureaucrats do change, it won’t be in any way that we can easily identify.

And it might not be for the better. One participant on my panel claimed the full potential of the Internet would have the same effect on government as the discovery that the world was round. Sounds nice, but I should have pointed this out then (what can I say, I’m a slow thinker): what mattered wasn’t the roundness of the world but Galileo’s discovery that it revolved around the sun, pushing the earth and its inhabitants out of the center of the universe. The internet seems to put us right back in that un-humbling spot.

Let’s say a bunch of people Twitter angrily about a long line at the DMV. What’s the state supposed to do? Rush over untrained workers from some other office to handle the crush? Or make a case for higher taxes so that the DMV can be fully staffed or stay open for more hours? You decide.

Second, Obama adapted Web tools to fuel an insurgent campaign against an institution, the Democratic Party, that had already anointed Hillary Clinton. It’s unclear how you adapt those tools to running an institution, whether party or government. Unless you are prepared to radically change the institution.

Third, too often¬† the assumption behind publishing reams of gov’t information online and fostering discussion seems to be that people will arrive at a rational consensus on where the country should go. For example, I saw a comment here asking how people can use a bunch of congressional info for the public good. When you come across a definition of the public good that every voting American can agree on — and a set of policies designed to get there — get back to me. If I’m still alive, I’ll gladly entertain debate on the use of this particular info.

Fourth, the debate simply overlooks how much our forebears were able to do without the Internet. Adopt the reforms of the New Deal and the Progressive Era? Populate a continent and build the world’s largest economy? It should be obvious, but no one appears to appreciate it. Technology alone does not guarantee sweeping political change. It could even hinder it.

Electronic mediums seem to inflame differences rather than bridge them. It’s why testy email exchanges degenerate so quickly. They take away as much of our common humanity (our physical presence being a big part of it) as they let us share.

It appears that Democrats in Adams and Franklin county have an online edge. They’re pushing Dem Bruce Tushingham out in front of Republican Rich Alloway in this Internet poll I set up many moons ago. I don’t quite understand the results, but it seems Tushingham has support of 65% versus 10.3% for Alloway. Both are running for a state Senate seat, to replace retiring Terry Punt, a Republican.

I haven’t seen many yard signs yet, but then again, I’m not driving regularly on Route 30 between York and Gettysburg. That, after all, is the other important metric in this race. Oh, and so is the overwhelming advantage in voter registration enjoyed by the GOP. I wonder if that will make a difference in the fall…

Is it possible that the Internet is changing politics? You’d be foolish to think otherwise. But you’d also be foolish if you thought the Internet laid the foundation for some utopian break.

What if the Internet served mainly as a funnel for the village cranks who, in the past, bored their family, friends and neighbors with their rants, sent angry letters to newspaper editors and generally made a habit of being self-righteous, indignant and quick to jump on everyone else’s hypocrisy but their own? Sounds like the political Internet, eh? The funnel has turned into a megaphone that’s harder and harder for the rest of us to dismiss politely, as we would the neighborhood crank. All the cranks are linked together now — and plugged directly into the media.

Consider the tempest-in-a-T-1-cable over comments by John McCain’s Internet adviser. He said something to the effect that McCain doesn’t need to know how to use a computer to govern effectively. The people bemoaning this sound a bit like someone complaining about a city council member who doesn’t know what it’s like to live on their street because s/he lives in some other, better-protected neighborhood.

Ultimately, Americans don’t need a leader who understands the Internet. They need a leader who can help them get affordable health care, sensible energy choices and perhaps an end to the war in Iraq. But just as the issues are eclipsed by the likes of Chris Matthews’ analyzing the interior and ulterior motives of Bill Clinton, they’ll be eclipsed by judgments concerning politicians’ use of, and attitude towards, new technology.

The good news for American democracy online is that there will always be some new toy for the insiders to twitter about.

To continue the Google is making us stupid thread (see below)…perhaps the Internet is doing to information what the assembly line did to cars and toys and air conditioners and televisions. It made them into endlessly proliferating commodities outsourced to the lowest bidder. Writers who want to make more than a pittance will have to unionize, become celebrities or rebrand their output as a luxury product worth a steep premium.

So I was thinking more about this Google makes us stupid article, and I realized the author was too quick to blame technology for shortening attention spans. What if the main culprit was the relentless push for higher productivity?

Interestingly enough, the author (Nicholas Carr) mentions Frederick Taylor, who used a stop-watch to boost productivity among factory workers starting in the early 20th century. And he goes on to talk about how productivity is now more easily measured among “knowledge workers” (you can see the impact in attempts to measure journalistic output and “rightsize” newsrooms) But I don’t think Carr went far enough in analyzing economic forces. He was content to look mostly at the tools.

You could blame the assembly line for killing craftsmanship and ramping up productivity, just as you can blame the hammer for making us weaker — our ancestors drove nails with their teeth. But people had to invent the assembly line and convince and/or force other people to use it, regardless of its long-term impact on their lives. The same could be said about the Internet.

Warning: any further reading online could make you stoopid.

That’s the gist of an argument in this month’s Atlantic Monthly about Google, the Internet and its effect on our brains. It’s an interesting read, but a bit light on context. The “us” the author discusses is a relatively small cohort of self-described “knowledge workers” — writers, researchers, professors, artists, critics, who now sit in front of computers for a living. They fear they’re losing their attention spans and depth of thought as they skip from one hyperlink to another, surrounded by blinking ads, scrolling text and a thousand other distractions.

I suppose it’s possible, and likely. But it makes you wonder how powerfully they were able to concentrate in the first place and how deep their thoughts really were if their hard-won discipline is so easily undermined. Few people in history ever have had the patience to read thousands of pages per week. (Reading itself can be a bit of a pathology — substitute the act of reading for watching TV when you skim this particular diatribe about the boob tube. Somewhere on a shelf in a Virginia sits a copy of this book, my feverish notes covering many of its pages.)

The author of the Atlantic article, Nicholas Carr, offers a perceptive quote from Socrates, who was concerned about the invention of writing — there’s always someone to lament the advent of new technology. Socrates’ gripe was that writing offered a shortcut to knowledge. People would gain the conceit of wisdom without achieving true wisdom. However, Carr argues, Socrates failed to foresee the great improvements in the human condition that would come about because of writing.

Socrates’ greater point about wisdom still holds up. I doubt technology has ever been an impediment — or a facilitator — on the road to wisdom. People get it or they don’t, no matter how many speeches they hear, books they read or web sites they visit. Technology just makes it easier to seem less dumb.