Column: What is the Internet For?
The world has changed. Every generation says that, and to some extent, of course, that is accurate. However, the changes of the last twenty years have shattered expectations of “the end of history” and created a world never seen before.
A message that once would have taken months to deliver now arrives in under a second. As a result, the entire world is now enmeshed in a network of interconnection that is altering how we think and interact with people. In fact, it is altering the brain itself. How exactly has this affected our ability to reason and think genuinely about the world that surrounds us?
Our methods of thinking have shifted from deep immersion to shallow immersion in larger pools of information. On the surface, “shallow” thought seems like a bad thing, but it’s a different way of thinking, not a worse one. A college student can read three articles from their twitter feed on the bus instead of sorting through academic journals to find a single relevant article.
College students easily have the capability to overcome these limiting obstacles to thought by instead engaging with the significant but undervalued intellectual exchange enabled through our technological connections.
The Internet is not simply one website. Only part of it is actually devoted to posting pictures of cats or memes. Hiding in many corners of the Internet lay communities and forums of intelligent posters, looking to discuss and debate ideas. When we put some effort into most sites, we find pockets of critical discussion and thought.
Bastions of free thought lay scattered all throughout the Internet, from certain Facebook pages, to political forums and even corners of Reddit. All we must do is discover them. These sites bring college students many avenues for enhanced critical thought, but students must choose to follow these paths.
Not only can technology equal the amount of intellectual engagement a person has, it can greatly enhance it. Whatever geographical location you live within will have certain biases and tendencies of thought that limit the spectrum of intellectual discussion. Opposed to this is the Internet, where anyone can exchange ideas with any person as equals, allowing us exposure to patterns of thought and perspectives we’d never even considered before. This is significant because an important facet of truly critical thought is consideration and exposure to perspectives previously unknown to us.
Of course, the Internet is not perfect. What once were strongholds of intellectual discourse sometime transform into stagnant echo chambers where no progress is really made. A prominent example is Reddit, where the voting system, originally intended to give attention to the best posts, has morphed into a way to stifle other opinions. Today, only certain viewpoints ever reach the front page and any opinions that disagree sadly sink out of sight. However, this was an active choice that the members of Reddit made through their obsession with voting. College students have the choice to either engage in critical thought with others on the Internet or to simply read about the Kardashian family and their “kats.”
The key in this whole debate over the effects of technology and our increasing connections is use. Viewing sites such as Reddit, where critical engagement collapsed, versus intellectual forums dotting the Internet, highlights that in all cases, it boils down to the choices of Internet users. The best communities online are not the ones who reward instant gratification and crowd mentality but the ones who call for thorough pensiveness. Technology is not bad because of an inherent problem with interconnection but rather a problem with misuse.
If all Internet users have this choice in how they broaden or shrink their thinking online, then so do college students. They are among the largest demographic affected in our breakneck shift towards hypersonic communication, and thus our most critical concern, because they are about to control our future. Is the Internet depriving them of the ability to engage in reasoning and turning them into shuffling drones?
No. In actuality, the problems surrounding technology arise from how it’s used, which is the case with absolutely any item or service in our lives.
There’s nothing wrong with eating a burger, but eating five hundred is definitely awful for one’s health. The same goes for college students and social media. They can maintain their level of critical thought, and even cultivate it more efficiently with the exchange of ideas found all across the network in which humanity is now immersed. It’s how they choose to use it that matters, and no one can really make that decision for them. Let’s hope we make the right judgment.
Chase Cabot is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs.