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Dvorak: The Internet Is Making Us Dumber

These days everyone is so enthusiastic about the evolution of the Web, with its free content, interesting blogs, citizen journalism and the rest of it.

Not me. The big problem, as I see it, is the decline in general perspective, which is due to the decline in the popularity of newspapers and magazines.

By perspective, I mean generalized or common knowledge.

When you pick up The New York Times and look at the front page, you get a general perspective on world events. As you page through the newspaper, you see all sorts of interesting articles that you might not have read if you were merely surfing the Net for news.

Over time, this sort of happenstance approach to information gives a reader perspective on things. You have a sense as to what the economy is doing. You know if some international disaster has occurred. You are more tuned in.

This is going away.

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It all started with the idea of the custom newspaper.

I've always been against it. It's been trotted about as a supposed good idea since the birth of the Internet. "You only get what news you want to get" was the sales pitch.

But how do you really know what news you want when the story has not been written? Most people who want custom news tend to want news only about their hobby or interests. Should a plague sweep through their city, they probably wouldn't know about it until they were dying from it.

This is the way all news is headed. Kids under 21 don't read newspapers. Many adults have stopped subscribing. The newspapers themselves are cheapening their product.

The New York Times recently laid off a bunch of reporters, who were replaced by bloggers and kids who just got out of journalism school. Probably all functionally good writers, they bring no life experience perspective to the table, and they probably lack world view perspective, too. And they are the ones doling out information to the masses.

I think all of these newbie writers for The New York Times should be assigned to a one-year stint in Bulgaria or Brazil as part of their job training.

Meanwhile, the public continues to read about what they already know. And they hang out only with like-minded people. There are huge cadres of people who are practically duplicates of each other. They all think alike, dress alike, and go to the same group-approved places.

With the slow death of newspapers, this beehive-like behavior is only going to get worse. And schools are not helping; they tend to have a political agenda and seem to limit, not enhance, world perspective. This is worsened by a de-emphasis on actual learning and an over-emphasis on personal self-esteem.

The self-esteem movement in education has fostered underachievers who are now out in the world of business, taking on jobs as clerks and cashiers. They can't add. They can't spell. They have no idea where Chicago is located on a map. They can't read a map, in fact. They are seemingly stupid and mostly incompetent.

But hey, they think they are winners just because they've been told they are winners. It was drummed into them.

These people eat up information from the Internet and they believe everything they read. They pass along gossip as fact. They fall for every hoax under the sun (especially the very old ones).

You wonder when some Nigerian e-mail scammer is going to fleece them. I have no idea what is going to happen when it dawns on this crowd that they are useless boneheads.

On the other end of the spectrum are the smart set, whose members also have no perspective. All they know is their business and not much else. They, too, are on the Net all day, getting a narrow stream of information.

Even the nightly TV newscast is losing its audience. It was the last best hope of giving the public some perspective on the world at large. Only oldsters watch TV news anymore.

The TV news magazines are also dying off — well, the "news" part of them is eroding.

Have you noticed, for example, that "60 Minutes" has fewer real reports? It's mostly interviews, and many of those shallow interviews are with entertainers who are somehow connected to Viacom. The other TV news magazines have long since given up and moved to gimmicks and dramatizations.

So the audience goes to the Net to get information — most of it without perspective, and, thus, the days of a wide public perspective of the world are almost gone.

I blame these three factors: the Internet; newspapers, for not acting responsibly and instead cheapening their product; and educational institutions. Schools do not teach kids how to use the Net responsibly. Kids need to be shown how to make it a useful resource rather than a source of disinformation and gossip.

What will the end result be of a nation of narrow thinkers? I do not know. We'll find out soon enough, and I suspect it won't be a good.

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