Culture Makes the Internet Cruder, Not the Other Way Around

Has the Internet damaged our culture and our politics? John Hawkins thinks so. He writes about a decline in civility in our culture, the power that comes from being able to anonymously say what you like without fear of repercussion, online polarization between left and right, and a decline in attention span.

Hawkins writes:

Back in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had a series of famous debates in which both men spoke for an hour and a half each. Today, only 10% of people on the net will even watch an entertaining five-minute video all the way through. That's problematic for our society because there are quite a few issues that simply cannot be adequately boiled down to a single slogan or sentence.

It would be foolish to deny there are problems with the Internet in our country. But to borrow a phrase from the gun rights movement, "The Internet doesn't destroy culture, people destroy culture."

Put another way, if you were to drop the Internet into the midst of the political life of 1858, would the people of that time have become drooling sycophants with the attention spans of six-year-olds? Of course not. Their social structure was such that the Internet would have developed in an entirely different way. The Internet was formed by culture, not the other way around.

Long before the existence of online forums, talk radio allowed people to mouth off with some anonymity. If you live in a good sized town and have a fairly common name, unless you have a one-of-a-kind voice no one knows who "Fred in Seattle" is and certainly no one will punch him in the nose.

Letters to the editor in newspapers are much the same way, even though people have to sign their names. The anonymity of other forums doesn't make our society coarser. It just opens the door for others to join in the coarseness already in progress.