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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.

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Note the absence of operating instructions.

Today’s college students are tech-savvy, sure. But here is how I would boil down my experience of digital natives trying to navigate the Internet:

People may grow up in a forest, but that doesn’t mean they know how to climb trees.

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.

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.

The big news in online politics is the number of people who watched Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race. What gets lost in the buzz, however, is the fact that Obama was doing something politicians have been doing since the flowering of Athenian democracy thousands of years ago. He gave a speech. It’s not clear to me what makes that so strategically groundbreaking,

At any rate, it’s ironic to see people touting a political speech as something of substance. It’s nice that people were willing to tune in. But the buzz speaks more to our hunger for substance rather than its actual existence on our plate. A speech is primarily rhetoric delivered from the top down.

A speech during a political campaign is exactly that. Sure, Obama is different and striving to rise above politics as usual. But even that is a well-worn theme. It works for him because he is fresh, young and neither a Clinton nor a Bush. Plus he is an undeniably effective speechifier. So was Bill Clinton. And so have been countless other politicians whose names and deeds we have long forgotten.

One source of amazement is that people tuned in to Obama’s speech for SO LONG!!! But plenty of vapid movies last even longer, and people sit through those, too.

So I am unpersuaded that length=substance or even says much about the average American’s attention span. I have a feeling it is under-rated by media types, who likely have more trouble focusing than people in lines of work that require more patience and concentration. Like surgery or carpentry or truck-driving.

The true test for Obama will come if and when he becomes president. Great speeches helped put Bill Clinton in the White House, but they didn’t help him in 1994. Change is hard. People think they want it more than they’re actually willing to embrace it in reality, especially if it means any kind of sacrifice or even a simple trade-off. Words only go so far.