A debate: information overload?

1 minute read

If you’re looking for a way to waste your time today, you might check out The Economist’s online debate, which focuses on the question of whether the world is getting more or less cultured. Or as they put it, “smarting up or dumbing down”:

Intelligent Life, The Economist's quarterly sister magazine, has been looking into what is happening to culture in Britain. The editor, Tim de Lisle, presents a mass of evidence that makes a seemingly irrefutable case: all over the country, more people are going to museums, visiting literary festivals and listening to classical music than ever before. If that isn't wising up, it is hard to know what is.
Susan Jacoby, a scholar whose career began as a reporter on the Washington Post and whose writing now focuses on American intellectual history, sees no reason for Westerners to pat themselves on the back. The education bar, in the Anglo-American world, at least, she says, is being set lower and lower. Fewer and fewer people read books; instead they just hoover up information on the internet. After she wrote an article for her former paper on the decline of reading, she received a deluge of emails from people who said they were proud that they never read books at all. They couldn't see the point.

The recurring issue in the debate seems to be whether people are using information in a deeper or more superficial way. Since both these terms are laden with moral value (always better to be deep than superficial, right?), one may wonder whether the real question isn’t whether we feel better about ourselves or not.

Indeed, the two participants devolve immediately into schoolmarmy arguments about whether “high culture” is thriving or not. So we have “increasing attendance at museums” on one side the balance and “decreasing market for hardbound fiction” on the other. Blah.

It would be more interesting to consider the biocultural question: If our culture presents us with more information, do we actually get better at using it over time? There’s no mention of the Flynn Effect in the debate, but it seems very relevant – especially considering the worry that the Brits are “dumbing down”.