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Is the Internet Making Us Smarter or Stupider?
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Question: Is the Internet making us smarter or stupider?
Matthew Nisbet: Well I think when we’re thinking about how digital media is influencing our lives and influencing society I think it’s very easy to break arguments down into two different camps. You have digital enthusiasts and optimists who argue that everything has changed, everything is different, that individuals and groups are strongly empowered now in an era of digital media. On the other hand you have digital pessimists and internet pessimists, who talk about the distractions of the internet and in fact actually the internet makes it easier for those traditionally in power or for traditional media organizations to market to us and to influence our lives. But the reality is that the truth is somewhere in between. Oftentimes arguments and anecdotal evidence are pulled together to argue in somewhat of a simplistic direction in either way, but the real question should be under what conditions, under what situations, for what issues. What types of media and what types of users has the digital age led to empowerment and civic participation and greater control and greater choice and under what conditions does the Internet lead to negative consequences either for civic culture or for just personal well-being?
Question: What are some examples of positive change?
Matthew Nisbet: Well you know I think as Clay Shirky, I think, argues quite effectively there is sort of unlimited creative opportunities for individuals, individuals either as individual creators of content or in collaboration. He often points to Wikipedia. He argues that if we just… if the world public or Americans just took a fraction of the time that we formerly spent with traditional media and we used it in terms of some type of collective creative process, as has been done with Wikipedia, we can transform culture and we can create new knowledge and in that case I think he is right. I think that Wikipedia is a great example of collective creativity and kind of knowledge creation that transcends sort of the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge in society—whether it was formally the editors of encyclopedias, journalists or traditional academics and researchers. So I think that is one example for sure.
On the other hand there are all sorts of other examples I think where the digital age continues to distract us and leads to different types of negative consequences. One of the examples I like to use with my students is I often relate when I was in college at Dartmouth in the early '90s we went four years basically without ever watching television. We had no cable access in our rooms and we had very limited access to broadcast stations. Today’s students they don’t watch physically a TV, but they probably spend more time watching actual traditional television content by way of their laptops than any college generation in history. That is fundamentally different now about the college experience. The amount of time that students are spending online sure they’re watching a lot of independently produced video at different places, but most of what they watch are traditional media products simply streamed to them by way of their laptops.
Question: And some negative consequences?
Matthew Nisbet: Well I think the negative consequences is that, you know, the traditional arguments and the criticisms about television in terms of the portrayals and entertainment portrayals either of negative stereotypes, of the types of time-displacement and distraction that happens when a viewing public might spend on average four hours of TV, four hours a day watching TV. That time is probably better spent doing other things, either reading or outside physical activity or in terms of social interaction. All of those negative consequences for many users of online media are amplified today. You have a lot of data and a lot of studies about internet addiction and if anything the conversations that are happening on Twitter, at blogs, on Facebook, most of those conversations are in and around and about entertainment content that is produced by traditional media companies.
Recorded on July 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
The answer lies somewhere in between, says Nisbet.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
The word "learning" opens up space for more people, places, and ideas.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Times of crisis tend to increase self-centered acts.