Are we suffocating beneath a deluge of Internet drivel?

“Suddenly thanks to Google Books, JS-TOR and the like, all the great thinkers of all the civilizations past and present are one or two clicks away. The great library of Alexandria, nexus of all the learning of the ancient world that burned to the ground, has risen from the ashes online. And yet—here is the paradox—the wisdom of the ages is in some ways more distant and difficult to find than ever, buried like lost treasure  beneath a fathomless ocean of online ignorance and trivia that makes what is worthy and timeless more inaccessible than ever.” – Ron Rosenbaum, “The Last Renaissance Man,” a feature in “Smithsonian Magazine” about Lewis Lapham of “Lapham’s Quarterly”

Search Engine

Men my age are often called curmudgeons because we decry the best of the past that often is, or appears to be, lost to us.

As a journalist and writer, I wonder what happened to objective news. (Yahoo even cites personal opinion blogs as news sources.) As a grocery shopper, I wonder why I can no longer buy Winesap apples at the grocery store. As a movie viewer, I wonder why–after all the years when movie screens and TVs were getting larger and easier to see, the “in” thing now is to watch movies on screens the size of a postage stamp on one’s cell phone.  And, as an author, I wonder why rants on Amazon are considered “reviews.”

Nonetheless, I think Lewis Lapham might well be right when he suggests that the Internet is “decapitating our culture, trading the ideas of some 3,000 years of civilization for…BuzzFeed.”

On any given day, the Yahoo “news” main story is more likely to be about either the jaw-dropping dress or the hideous fashion blunder of an actress than a news story about anything that remotely matters.

Why is this?

There are a lot of usual suspects…parents “rearing children” to believe they are entitled to everything free or almost free…the whole “teach the test” approach to education…liberal arts colleges giving way to colleges that offer direct training for one industry or another…Twitter and other nasty sites that champion having a short attention span…something in the drinking water…deadly rays from cell phones…and, perhaps, various forms of self-centered greed.

Take your pick.

Half Empty or Half Full

When asked whether a glass is half empty or half full, positive people supposedly say it’s half full. That beats empty. On the other hand, perhaps the correct answer is the glass is larger than necessary, rather like using a gallon jar for a task requiring a thimble.

We can see the drivel all too easily. On the other hand, we can tune it out. The Internet is far too large to contain only what each of us wants. Whether we see the amount of drivel as information democracy or an unlimited smorgasbord, the challenge is finding better ways to tell the drivel sites from the trash sites, and to discover new ways of finding the hidden gems.

For every one hundred people who appear on Leno’s “Jay Walking”  bits in which he asks everyday people simple questions about history, geography and culture who can’t tell us the capital of their own state, there are (hopefully) five people who knew all the answers but didn’t make the show because correct answers aren’t funny. (I wonder why the incorrect answers are funny.) I’m not sure the amount of drivel in the world is increasing but rather that it’s more visible with the Internet, more TV channels, 14-hour news, and the social media.

On its “about us” page, Lapham’s Quarterly says it, “embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—War, Religion, Money, Medicine, Nature, Crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past. Valuable observations of the human character and predicament don’t become obsolete.”

I find many treasures on the Internet. Finding them is, at times, like going to a garage sale and looking through somebody else’s trash for something I will treasure. Finding one’s treasure has never been easy. Even before Gutenberg made the dissemination of the written word easier to do when he introduced movable type about 1439, there was a lot of drivel in the world. It didn’t take long for people to decry books they thought were either hopeless or heretical.

When Newton Minnow told the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961 that television was a “vast wasteland,” the notion that the drivel outweighed the most wonderful programs being produced wasn’t new.  Minnow suggested more government involvement in fixing the problem than I liked. It’s really difficult to force people to read only the best books and watch only the best movies and TV shows. It’s utterly impossible to say which books/films/shows those are.

In the half-full/half-empty glass puzzle, one can always begin with too small a glass, meaning that some of the water isn’t going to fit. Even though the too-large glass has a lot of air in it, there’s space available for whatever we want to add. Perhaps it’s more water. Perhaps it’s rocks. I like seeing empty space in a glass or on the Internet because that means there’s always room for more. If only 5% or 10% of that more is any good, we still end up with a greater number of tasty sips of water (or, perhaps, Scotch) than before.

There used to be a joke site or two claiming that “you have reached the end of the Internet,” meaning the last possible URL that was out there. Scary thought. In some ways, an online facility with more drivel also has more treasures. Each of us can decide which are which and how to tell the difference.

Malcolm