If you’ve ever been on a jury, you might have noticed that a funny thing happens the minute you get behind closed doors. Everybody starts talking about themselves. They say what they would have done if they had been the plaintiff or the defendant. They bring up anecdote after anecdote. It can take hours to get back to the points of law that the judge has instructed you to consider.
Being on a jury (I recently served on my fourth) reminds me why I can’t stomach talk radio. We Americans seem to have lost the ability to talk about anything but our own experiences. We can’t seem to generalize without stereotyping or to consider evidence that goes against our own experience.
I heard a doctor on a radio show the other day talking about a study that found that exercise reduces the incidence of Alzheimer’s. And caller after caller couldn’t wait to make essentially the opposite point: “Well, my grandmother never exercised and she lived to 95, sharp as a tack.” We are in an age summed up by the aphorism: “I experience, therefore I’m right.”
This isn’t a new phenomenon, except by degree. Historically, the hallmarks of an uneducated person were the lack of ability to think critically, to use deductive reasoning, to distinguish the personal from the universal. Now that seems an apt description of many Americans. The culture of “I” is everywhere you look, from the iPod/iPhone/iPad to the fact that memoir is the fastest growing literary genre.
How’d we get here? The same way we seem to get everywhere today: the Internet. The Internet has allowed us to segregate ourselves based on our interests. All cat lovers over here. All people who believe President Obama wasn’t born in the United States over there. For many of us, what we believe has become the most important organizing element in our lives. Once we all had common media experiences: Walter Cronkite, Ed Sullivan, a large daily newspaper. Now each of us can create a personal media network – call it the iNetwork – fed by the RSS feeds of our choosing.
But the Internet doesn’t just cordon us off in our own little pods. It also makes us dumber, as Nicholas Carr points out in his excellent book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.” He argues that the way we consume media changes our brains, not just our behaviors. The Internet rewards shallow thinking: One search leads to thousands of results that skim over the surface of a subject.
Of course, we could dive deeply into any one of the listings, but we don’t. Studies show that people skim on line, they don’t read. The experience has been designed to reward speed and variety, not depth. And there is tangible evidence, based on studies of brain scans, that the medium is changing our physical brains, strengthening the synapses and areas used for referential thinking while weakening the areas used for critical thinking.
And when we diminish our ability to think critically, we, in essence, become less educated. Less capable of reflection and meaningful conversation. Our experience, reinforced by a web of other gut instincts and experiences that match our own, becomes evidence. Case in point: the polarization of our politics. Exhibit A: the debt ceiling impasse.
Ironically, the same medium that helped mobilize people in the Arab world this spring is helping create a more rigid, dysfunctional democracy here: one that’s increasingly polarized, where each side is isolated and capable only of sound bites that skim the surface, a culture where deep reasoning and critical thinking aren’t rewarded.
The challenge for most of us isn’t to go backwards: We can’t disconnect from the Internet. Nor would we want to. But we can work harder to make “search” the metaphor it once was: to discover, not just to skim. The Internet lets us find facts in an instant. But it doesn’t stop us from finding insight, if we’re willing to really search.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.