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Friday, June 20, 2008

Comfortably Dumb

In our third part of the series, Good vs. Evil we explore the effect the Internet has on our minds. Has the Internet made us dumber as a race? When I say race I mean the human race. It’s not like dogs are out there looking up chew toys on eBay. During my look at the Internet as being evil or good, I realize that I may have been too specific in saying that it’s one or the other. That’s like saying a gun or the atomic bomb is evil. It’s not. It is simply a thing. Granted the atomic bomb is not a realized idea unless it’s activated or exploded. Simply being is not its purpose. The intended use of an atomic bomb is for evil. The process by which the reaction occurs is not evil. It can be very beneficial. Such is the Internet. The Internet can be a useful thing. It can also be used for evil as I’ve babbled on over the last few parts of this series. Regardless of alignment, has the Internet made us a dumber species? Are we smarter than we were 15 years ago? Have we put so much reliance on the Internet that if it were gone tomorrow, would we be able to cope? By that token, is the Internet evil?

Think back to 1993. I was a recent high school graduate. If I wanted to know someone’s address I had to look up their phone number and hope that I could decipher the short hand, abbreviated address next to their name. It became worse if they had a last name like Smith, Miller, Jones, or any other common name. Some people had their first names shortened to a single letter and then the problem became exponentially more difficult. You could try calling all the numbers in hopes of finding the right person. That is, if they were home or had an answering machine to give you some kind of clue as to who they were. Today, a few keystrokes and a click of the mouse can give us more information than we ever could find without a friend in the DMV or police department. I can tell you how old you are, possible relatives, and known cities of residence. Then I can use another website to try and locate your address and phone number. With that same bit of information, depending on your city or county, I can tell you how much your mortgage was on your house and who you bought it from years ago. I can then take that information and use it to do bad things. Granted, I’ve gone beyond my point, but the above is a model for how much information is available to us.

Fifteen years ago, I had to type a school paper on a word processing program like Microsoft Word or Word Perfect. I had to be pretty diligent to adhere to writing standards. Granted, spell check was available and some grammar checking was around at the time, but if I wanted to make sure I was speaking in proper English, I had to have some instruction in school. Now, I can write a paper with multiple errors, hit a couple of buttons and whoosh. It’s all fixed. That’s not because of the Internet. However, if I wanted to plagiarize that paper, I have a bigger pond from which to fish. Only in the last five or six years has the education system taken measures to guard against this thievery of prose. Still, the backend dealings of p2p and torrent sites have ways of making you a tidy little profit if you can bypass the search engines and regularly monitored sites. There are various ways to get yourself a top notch paper and you don’t even have to spend any time in the library. That’s another thing. When I had a paper to do for a class, my first stop was the library. I had to look through the card catalog to find a resource. I had to sit at a table, quietly and read, taking notes for my assignment, making sure to cite that source correctly. Now, who needs to even take a step into the library? A simple search on the subject matter can return tens of thousands of results with bibliographies in tow, all without having to even read the book.

Writing in general has become a joke. Do you remember in elementary school when you used to get a pizza party as a reward for getting enough stickers from some writing academy? Our teacher used to take a black marker or piece of masking tape and put a diagonal line on our desks for where the top edge of our paper was to be placed. If you were left handed, I imagine you were screwed. We’d all put our cursive and printed letters in between the lines and hope that the no one would screw up so that we could get that pizza. Then, as we grew older, our penmanship skills started to suffer as educators began to require all papers to be typed. I used to think that writing skills were going to disappear from the face of the Earth. What kid knows penmanship in the computer age? Now, I’m worried about the English language in general. Kids today do not write to each other in full sentences. They use leet speak. Leet, a variation on ‘elite’ was a hacker language. Online bulletin board systems sometimes had ‘elite’ areas that contained various pirated software or instructions on how to construct explosives or manufacture drugs. If you were considered ‘leet’ you could have access to them. Changing letters into homoglyphs was used to bypass text filters which would red flag administrators or system operators of inappropriate behavior. Typing ‘pr0n’ instead of ‘porn’ would bypass early filters. An example for anyone over the age of 30 is Journey’s Escape album which is written on the cover as E5C4P3. Since then, the n00bs have taken over and it is no longer elite. The younger, Internet aged, generation has adopted the stylings of leet for texting or messaging with abbreviations or acronyms such as ROFL, LOL, BRB, and BFF. Soon, I imagine any kid born after 2005 will have no idea how to type on a keyboard. They’ll be lost trying to figure out how to make their thumbs reach the inside keys while holding they keyboard with both hands. In fact even typing has become lackadaisical with spelling and grammar. Since the ‘T’ and the ‘H’ are close together, sometimes they are often switched when typing the word ‘THE’. ‘Teh’ has become known as ‘the’ in Internet Chat and texting. I fear pens will soon be a thing of the past. We are so pwned.

Math… Don’t even get me started. I took Physics during my junior year of high school and the biggest advantage anyone had in that class was either having a graphing calculator or a having a cover for your regular calculator that you could stick a crib sheet with formulas on it. There are websites now that can do graphing for you in flash. Homework can be done online and someone has already done a lot of the work for you. If you can think of a way to get around doing the work, someone already has and it is literally a few keyword searches away.

Now, these examples just cover what happens to us in our formative years. Think about the workplace. As it is, I’m type this blog at work, during my lunch, and anytime I have to wait for a web page to load. My posting schedule is restricted to my free time and that only happens at work. This country probably loses more productivity to the Internet than any other detrimental distraction. For the most part, we shop, read news, and look for other jobs while we’re supposed to be working. But, on occasion we are doing absolutely nothing on the Internet. It’s the equivalent of channel surfing. Maybe I’ll play a game, take some stupid online personality test, or just watch some badger bounce around the screen as a couple of mushrooms pop up, occasionally. People actually devote websites to wasting time. And, email, oh boy email. Wow, how much crap do we see in our inbox that comes from coworkers and friends? I have tried to do my part here at work. Every time I get a forward from someone, I try to be proactive and research it on If it’s a hoax or a fake, I try to reply to everyone telling them to not pass it on to more people. It’s just my part for bandwidth conservation.

On a side note, here is how bad it really is when it comes to the Internet making us stupid. An acquaintance recently saw an advertisement either through email or on the Internet advertising pug puppies for adoption. In the message, the person was either a doctor or worked for UNICEF and had to move to Africa and could no longer take care of the dogs. For $400, they would ship the dogs to this person. After paying the money, the dogs made their long trek to the U.S. but were stopped and quarantined in London. Another communication was sent saying that more money was needed to clear them. They begged and pleaded on behalf of an animal lover’s good hearted nature. They didn’t to see these dogs mistreated or kept in horrible conditions in another country. Are you seeing the pattern here? There are no puppies in quarantine because there are no puppies. This is a scam and unfortunately, this person and another friend were duped for over $400 by this scam. It’s nothing new. I get tons of emails from smart people who think that if they forward it to ten people something amazing will happen. “Hey. Did you hear? Appleby’s is giving away gift certificates if you forward on this email.” “Bill Gates will give me money, if I send this on, keep it going!” What surprises me is not the amount of people that send this email but the amount of times it keeps coming back year after year. Missing kids, unreal photos, gas pump bans all flood our inboxes with surprising frequency. Just in case you think you should forward on that email about Wal-Mart banning the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ from employees vocabulary, yes, it’s true, and it’s also been over for about three years now.

Still, as much as I want to say that the Internet is to blame for all of this, I have to believe that we, as humans are dumber because we let it happen. If the Internet went away tomorrow, I would be lost, for about a month. Everything I do at work involves an Internet based application. My banking, my bills, my blog… It’s all done on the Internet. I have all my utilities, my mortgage, car, and credit card payments set up automatically on the Internet. Sure, I won’t be able to see if they’re paid, but does my bank also use an Internet connection to draft those payments? Banks don’t hold my money anymore. They hold ones and zeros in a program and that gets sent electronically from one computer account to another. If a situation like the one in James Cameron’s series, Dark Angel, happened would we be thrown into chaos? We would. Hell we all though that the year 2000 was going to be the apocalypse, not in a biblical sense, but in an economical and technological sense. We spend so much time trying to be foreign oil independent we lose sight that everything that runs this country doesn’t necessarily run fuel. It runs on a server in a room somewhere with cables flowing through every nook and cranny and into the oceans. We could very well destroy ourselves by pushing the wrong button on an ATM.

The Internet is Evil
(but only because we made it that way.)

If you find the square root of Deus Ex Machina from The Matrix Revolutions and multiply that by a faked photo of an iceberg and then divide that by the Tron Guy, you get Hansel and Derek Zoolander trying to work a computer.

In terms of being evil, the Internet was created in the image of its maker. We are evil and we are dumb. Hopefully we won't pay the ultimate price for it. Hmm, I better start boning up on my penmanship. I may be writing my blog in ink in the future.

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