There’s little use pining for the good, old days before the Internet and resisting change

A dinner-table conversation (despite the mildly strong Indian preference for not talking while victualing) a while back drifted towards Napoleon. Specifically, it focused on the date of the French emperor's death. One might argue that this is not a particularly palatable topic for a dinner conversation but then my wife does not allow me to watch large cats having their dinner on the African Savannah while I'm having mine, so I have to make do with dubious conversation topics instead.

Of course, I brought Napoleon up to prove a point. I asked if anyone at the table remembered when Napoleon died. Some well-informed folks placed the date somewhere around the first couple of decades of the nineteenth century. Not bad, I said, but not good enough. I wanted the precise Lagnam, Nakshathram and position of Pluto at the time of his death. “Pshaw,” said the chap who wanted to score brownie points for being borderline accurate. I then unleashed my Smartphone and used my left hand to do a Google search for “Napoleon death” and it informed me quite succinctly that it was May 5, 1821.

The point I was trying to make was that the Internet was making us all smarter. For the first time in mankind's history, I pontificated, everyone knows the difference between information and knowledge. The Internet gives us the former while the latter is still largely optional. I argued that, in the past, people with access to factual information (libraries, books, talkative uncles et al) had an unfair advantage over folks who did not, and now, thanks to a dubiously priced 3G connection on my mobile phone, no one was, in Chennai parlance, going to pull a “peter” on me by claiming to know Napoleon's date of death. From an age when I could impress a teacher by secretly owning an expensive encyclopaedia, we've moved to an era where we LOL at people who don't do a Wikipedia search before asking questions.

But there are contrarian views. Nicholas Carr, in his by now debated-to-death essay “Is Google making us Stoopid” argues that the Internet might be making us all dumb. I'd agree with him but only in the case of the chap who gets run over by an MTC bus while attempting to cross the road and update his Facebook status at the same time. Carr believes that the Internet is reducing our attention span and cutting down our appetite for long-form literature. The average length of a YouTube video is a few minutes and the average length of a blog post about 450 words. In fact, Carr believes that you, the reader of The Hindu, should, at this moment, be itching to check for new SMSes in your mobile right now. He even quotes cognitive neuroscience research to support his viewpoint that the Internet is indeed fundamentally rewiring our brains in a bad way.

In the late eighteenth century, a certain Ned Ludd broke equipment in a textile factory in protest of what he felt was a threat to the manual crafting of garments. His act eventually became an entire social movement, the Ludditemovement that sought to ban automation in favour of artisanal labour. A few hundred years before Ludd, a Venetian editor (unfortunately) named Hieronimo Squarciafico bemoaned that the printing press was going to make men less studious because books would become too abundant.

So it turns out that we are all equally guilty of technostalgia, that all too human tendency to be attached to the trappings of our own eras and vehemently oppose any disruptive change. The Internet is a disruptive change, and it will bring a whole lot of good, and a bit of bad. Like we did with the printing press, we'll figure it out eventually.

Keywords: InternetWikipedia