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Are Digital Media Making Us Smarter or Dumber?

Are we texting, tweeting, and Web surfing our way into a new age of ignorance? Or are digital media making us smarter than ever? 

That was the topic of a lively and impassioned discussion at this week’s American Forum on WAMU (88.5 FM), “Are Media Making Us Dumber? Intellect, Ignorance and Influence in the Digital Age.”

For all its convenience, the Internet and its digital relatives are addictive media that undermine reading, distract us from learning, and lure us into isolation, said author and former Washington Post reporter Susan Jacoby, whose acclaimed books include the bestseller The Age of American Unreason.

Not so, said Andy Carvin, coordinator of National Public Radio’s social media strategy. People can be empowered to engage in grassroots politics, connect around the world, or sometimes just “post dumb cat pictures”—something to which he pleads guilty—because the Internet “is very much what you make of it.”

Also on the pro-Internet side was Joshua Hatch, a multimedia producer for USA Today and a current graduate student at SOC. He called it an “agnostic tool,” to which Jacoby replied, “there is no such thing as an agnostic tool . . . The Internet is designed to distract you. We all know this, if we’re honest.”

“I’d say it’s designed for discovery,” retorted Carvin.

Volatile back-and-forth dialogue was the order of the evening. Weighing in on both sides was SOC professor Kathryn Montgomery, who sees digital media as a creative tools—students aren’t just connecting, but customizing and producing—but also one that encourages instant gratification and addictive behavior.

Students in Montgomery’s class are routinely required to go cold turkey from electronic media for 24 hours and report on their often challenging hiatus. Her most recent book is Generation Digital Politics, Commerce and Childhood in the Age of the Internet.

Connection can be illusory, Jacoby charged. E-mail, texting, and online chats draw people away from true interaction into the illusory, low-commitment engagement of online “communities” who often don’t even know each other. It enables people to avoid engagement under the guise of participation. There’s a difference, she said, between friendship and “twittering once in a while.”

Hatch countered that instead of replacing real friendships, it’s replacing non-friendships, enabling people to keep up with those they’d either have lost touch with or not connected much with at all. It’s also, he said, more active than television, which is what people would be doing rather than engaging in an idealized face-to-face social life.

Jacoby replied that in fact, people are sitting in front of both TV screens and computer screens, not replacing one with the other. “Often , it’s just a supplement to addiction to video.”

Montgomery disagreed that all screen time is bad time. She watches TV news with her daughter and discusses it, she said. Jacoby said “this is the upper middle class delusion.”