What the Internet Is Doing to Us

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Toward the end of Phaedrus–Plato’s masterful dialogue on rhetoric and erotic love–Socrates introduces an interesting argument with implications for us centuries later.  The argument is that the written word promotes superficial understanding because reading erodes discussion and the habit of discourse. People will come to believe they know much, but “for the most part they will know nothing.” They will also “be difficult to get along with” because “they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

The parallel between Plato’s passage and today’s digital world is uncanny. In the age of Wikipedia, MOOCs, Ted ED, and the like, we, too, should consider whether unguided–and often misguided–access to seemingly limitless information can promote genuine knowledge, or whether it is really only promoting superficial understanding.

So far the signs are ominous. The Internet deluges us with information but it feeds an assumption that knowledge is the systematic accumulation of that information rather than the analytical collection and management of facts and ideas. Its main concern is with apparatus, not content, as Theodore Roszak writes in The Cult of Information.

In consequence, it has helped to change attitudes, not only about the nature of knowledge, but also about authorship and the ownership and use of ideas.

This is one reason, for instance, why so many students have no qualms about passing off the work of others as their own, as a professor teaching an online course on fantasy and science fiction for Coursera discovered, even though the course wasn’t being offered for credit. It’s not plagiarism or cheating in their minds, it’s re-purposing, and it is entirely acceptable.

Even more unsettling is the finding of two researchers from the University of Ohio at Zanesville who recently reported that 72 percent of the students they surveyed admitted cheating on exams in their on-line courses.

Of course, cheating isn’t a problem exclusive to on-line courses, but as Richard P

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J.M. Anderson

J. M. Anderson is author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don't Learn in Graduate School.

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