Shifting Baselines

The world has changed. Sometimes its hard to notice. This is what “shifting baselines” is about. And this is also what an excellent article this month’s Atlantic Monthly titled Is Google Making Us Stupid is about. Much more than just the idea of getting lazy and using Google to remember things for you, the article talks about the entire shift of ability to focus and experience deep emotions that has taken place. I love this article.

For over twenty years I have felt what this article has to say. Since way back in the eighties when Beavis and Butthead introduced a new way of maintaining constant, shallow laughter that never has any depth to it. Since average citizens began learning how to speak directly and calmly to the television cameras on the same day that their loved one was murdered (you see it every day here in L.A., its incredible how composed people are these days speaking to cameras), since surfers learned how to have one of their own drown and instead of going home in shock and grief, they end up just keeping on surfing, saying amongst themselves, “he would have wanted us to do this” (as happened in January of this year).

Technology has changed us. The article talks about this. About how the advent of books and printing changed storytelling and even the depth of emotion. It’s not clear if this is a good or bad thing. For all the bad ways that books changed society there are as many or more great ways they improved society. The same may be true of the current shallowing.

Today people talk about some novelist being a “classic storyteller,” but that’s a joke. Classic storytelling doesn’t work in today’s shortened attention span society. As the article says, we are “pancaking” – developing wider, shallower interests. And this is the focus of the very profound Flash piece called EPIC 2014 from a few years ago. And it is the message of what I still think is the greatest movie civilization has ever produced…Idiocracy.

Who you callin’ stoopid.


  1. #1 Mike Hirshfield
    July 9, 2008

    what a great article. well, I only read the first part, then I got bored and wandered off…

  2. #2 Left_Wing_Fox
    July 9, 2008

    I don’t particularly agree with this, myself.

    This “dumbing down” might just be a matter of the democratization of the internet. Our social spheres are comprised of a lot of people with similar backgrounds to ourselves. I’m willing to bet most of your circle of friends include co-workers and old school companions: People with similar educational backgrounds and interests as your own. You might be on friendly terms with the WalMart clerk, but you probably won’t engage them in discussions about framing science or the latest discoveries in evolutionary biology or environmental policy.

    Yet on the internet, those clerks are commenting on your blogs. A lot of folks who simply did not have the money to go to college, and never got the time, guidance and access to the depth of knowledge you’ve come to expect from your peers, are now in your intellectual sphere online. These are folks who now have a massive amount of information available to them, but no way of separating the information from falsehoods, or unable to place trivia in the larger scheme of things to provide the sort of depth you’ve come to expect.

    I think the problem is not Google and Wikipedia. I think they merely unmasked a deeper problem with our education system; that too many of us cannot tell fact from fiction, logic from sophistry, or understanding from mere trivia.

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