Over at the Times‘s site, I contribute to a new “Room for Debate” discussion, “Reading More but Learning Less?,” on this question:
In the Web 2.0 age, when many Americans see hundreds of articles every day, are we more informed than previous generations were?
There’s not a whole lot of disagreement among the six contributors. In fact, the pieces seem more like variations on a theme, the theme being something like this: A poorly informed electorate is a cultural problem, and trying to apply a technological solution to it doesn’t seem to do all that much good. The point is made most eloquently, I think, by the historian Melvyn Dubofsky, who provides a glimpse into some of the decidedly low-tech, but nonetheless effective, forms of “social networking” that prevailed in the early years of the twentieth century:
A century ago nearly every city, town, and village had a lyceum or other venue in which visiting speakers regaled packed auditoriums with lectures on popular and abstruse subjects. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, a poor, largely East European Jewish neighborhood, the local Labor Lyceum scheduled talks on Marxism, socialism, anarchism, evolution, and religion as well as performances by talented musicians …
Such venues existed even in such far off places as Lead, S.D., Butte, Mont., and Cripple Creek, Colo., often in conjunction with local trade unions or labor and/or socialist parties. In unionized cigar-making factories in Tampa, Fla. and New York City, lectors, or readers, sat on high stools reading Shakespeare, Marx, Engels, Darwin, Hugo, Balzac, and Tolstoy as cigar rollers performed their skilled work.
When we define the effectiveness of information distribution in terms of its “scale,” we may be looking at the wrong thing.
Here’s a bit from my contribution:
It’s a fallacy to believe that dispensing more information more quickly will, in itself, raise the general level of public awareness. To be informed, a person has to want to be informed, and the percentage of Americans demonstrating such motivation seems to have remained pretty stable, and pretty abysmal, throughout our vaunted information age.