So last month we had an embarrassment of riches with intelligent articles on the perils of multitasking and the online rabbit hole.
This month, please welcome blowhardization, the inevitable second round of the public multitasking debate where bloviators are given extra time on the mike, and the more intelligent voices are gonged off stage.
Exhibit A: the recent Chicago Tribune article: “So how dumb are we?“. After drifting over Carr’s excellent essay, and giving a nod to another book, the writer decides to spend nine of her twenty paragraphs on this guy:
The question is hotly debated in academic circles, where Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein further turned up the temperature with his recent book, “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” Its subtitle: “Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.”
Who’s Bauerlein? He’s the English professor that formerly made a name for himself criticizing how “liberal” our college campuses were:
Academics may quibble over the hiring process, but voter registration shows that liberal orthodoxy now has a professional import. Conservatives and liberals square off in public, but on campuses, conservative opinion doesn’t qualify as respectable inquiry. You won’t often find vouchers discussed in education schools or patriotism argued in American studies. Historically, the boundaries of scholarly fields were created by the objects studied and by norms of research and peer review. Today, a political variable has been added, whereby conservative assumptions expel their holders from the academic market. A wall insulates the academic left from ideas and writings on the right.
His influence in the Tribune article extends well beyond the eight paragraphs that quote him. In fact the Tribune author’s lede:
NEW YORK—Who hasn’t snickered at “Jaywalking,” a “Tonight Show” segment in which host Jay Leno flummoxes unsuspecting young people on the street with such tricky questions as: In what country is Paris located?
is strangely similar to the first lines of Bauerlein’s book:
Everybody likes the “Jaywalking” segment on The Tonight Show. With mike in hand and camera ready, host Jay Leno leaves the studio and hits the sidewalks of L.A., grabbing pedestrians for a quick test of their factual knowledge.
So it’s not a surprise when Bauerlein shows up six paragraphs later to answer all the hard questions that less stellar lights such as Nick Carr have posed. This may look like a newspaper article, but in reality it’s a genre that astute readers are familiar with — it’s a book promotion piece plus extras. It’s not a book review — nothing in the article actually examines the premises of Bauerlein’s work in any systemic way. It’s an article written based on book, fueled by a promotional push.
Nick Carr doesn’t have a book out, or at any rate one on this subject that will sell, so he’s a footnote.
So if you ask why blowhardization always has to happen, there’s why. Because Bauerlein, Keen, and others write books that make people feel good about what they never learned, and argue their points without any disturbing ambiguity. That sells books, which generates press, and by the time this game of telephone ends people receive a debate that has all the nuance of an Andy Rooney rant.
I’m fully prepared to believe that Google may be making us stupid. But they are still remain rank amateurs compared to the press.