July 20, 2007

No one cares if you don't watch TV, you're still a lazy blockhead

"You watch television to turn your brain off and you work on your computer when you want to turn your brain on."
-- Steve Jobs, in Macworld Magazine, February 2004

I know, try hard not to laugh. But we've all run across someone like this or a website like this.

Perhaps when television first became widespread, it might have been worthwhile to warn of its potential to numb the minds of smart kids -- you don't want to end up like Mike Teavee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, do you? That book was published in 1964, and an update in the spirit of the original would properly focus more on the internet and cell phones. [1] Tellingly, the two most common derogatory phrases for television -- "idiot box" and "boob tube" -- date from 1955 - 1970, when they would have been relevant. [2]

But for at least the past 20 years, it should be a given that intelligent people won't watch much TV, if at all. Boasting of one's disinclination to stare at the idiot box can, therefore, imply only one of two things: 1) the person prefers the company of numbskulls, among whom TV abstinence would actually be noteworthy; or 2) he associates with those of similar intelligence but believes he should be lavished with praise for meeting minimal responsibilities. Given the tendency for people to seek out peers of similar intelligence, perhaps aided by the internet, the second interpretation is more likely. It reminds me of Chris Rock's joke about differing expectation levels among "Black people vs. niggas" (see here, 2:10 - 2:50).

In reality, the greatest threat to the intellectual lives of college graduates -- at least those whose minds have not irreparably rotted from studying literary theory or women's studies -- is internet pseudo-learning, exemplified by an addiction to Wikipedia and to blogs. I'll admit that a few years ago, I too was trapped in an ever-increasing spiral of Wikipedia tabs open simultaneously. For unlike TV, Wikipedia is seductive since there is a veneer of respectability to it, and clicking through its entries does, at least occasionally, require more cogitation than channel-surfing.

A responsible person will then grow out of this phase and, pace Jobs, strive to remain disconnected from the internet as much as possible. Of course, Wikipedia and blogs do make useful references if you need a quick refresher of some important idea, or if you want to stay up-to-date on important ideas from professional journals. And blogs like iSteve provide a valuable corrective to the mainstream media's lazy research and mealymouthed discussion on important current events such as illegal immigration.

However, I've noticed an unsettling tendency for reading blog entries and discussing ideas on blogs to replace actually reading the work under discussion. I can't say how bad this is in other parts of the idea-world, but bad science articles (usually from the social sciences) now not only have the mainstream media outlets to disseminate their questionable conclusions, but also those of blogs that focus on science in particular or ideas in general. The most recent example of this was a Psychology Today article on making sense of the world through evolutionary psychology. Unfortunately, as popular as it was, it made little sense of anything and was a boon to morons who cast aspersions on viewing human behavior in the light of evolution. Worse examples abound. [3]

Briefly, I'll note that I do not have in mind articles on Creationism, Intelligent Design, astrology, and similarly retarded ideas. They're out there, but they do not persuade much of the elite in any developed country -- their ridiculousness needs no comment -- and the elite are the ones who run things, and thus whose worldviews you should worry about. Scrawling jeremiads against these boogeymen is like barging into a hospital for invalids and running laps around everyone in the physical therapy wing. Way to go: you win the highest award in setting the lowest goals.

Nevertheless, there is a promising partial solution to Wikipedia-style learning -- namely, Open Access media. Trying to better oneself through Wikipedia or reading blogs is doomed to failure for the simple reason that such media can provide only the most superficial hints of what the subject matter is. Unlike most refereed journals, those belonging to the Public Library of Science, for example, are freely available to anyone, so that the lethargic cannot hide behind the excuse of "I don't have access to that article." Moreover, both MIT and Berkeley have collections of their courses available online (OCW and Webcast), preventing capable students from complaining that all they have available is Wikipedia. [4] Only the most slothful and conceited individuals could not be socially shamed into doing more with their time by using these resources: they're there, so what are you waiting around for? Granted, if your interest is in marketing, MIT may not have much to offer you, so in this narrow case I'm talking more about lazy nerds.

Like all tools, the internet has no inherent quality that makes it harmful or beneficient (a hammer can be used by a carpenter or a mugger). If the larger culture that creates it and periodically expands on it takes a permissive attitude toward pride, sloth, and lust, then a preponderance of the content will consist of MySpace, Wikipedia, and porn sites. These vices are "excessive" or "inordinate" amounts of something that might not be so harmful in small doses, so they're fine to have sort of in the background, as long as the value-adding websites dominate the foreground. Remember that I'm concerned mostly with the state of the elite -- they're the ones who could be studying, say, applied math in order to train the logical parts of their mind, enhance their marketability to employers, and improve the economy. Of course, that assumes that the little fucker wouldn't just use his math skills to enrich himself by, for example, speculating on foreign currencies, as opposed to inventing a labor-saving device.

So, I don't expect that the more frivolous websites will disappear totally, nor even become unpopular, and most people will be incapable of benefiting from Open Access media. Still, it's entirely reasonable to expect that the better blogs will inform increasingly more of the non-elite public on important matters that mainstream outlets do not cover seriously (whether they are CNN, NYT, or the ubiquitous celebrity-driven "news" sites). But for that to begin, there must be a greater emphasis on diligence, delaying gratification, and humility (in the sense of admitting that one has much to learn). Thankfully, the moral flapdoodle that we've inherited from the Boomers is becoming both less tenable and less fashionable, although the sudden resurgence of identity politics in the early '90s -- fully 25 years after the late '60s -- shows that part of the way forward will always consist of the boring but necessary chore of giving these preposterous ideas their due thrashing.

[1] The 2005 movie version at least shows Mike Teavee as a video gamer, although that too is about 10 to 20 years out-of-date. Fortunately for those who'd agree with the Jobs quote, the story does not focus on early and late adolescents, in which case the internet would assume an even more central role in depictions of their laziness and self-centeredness, on naked display throughout three of the most popular websites for this age-group: YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook.

[2] According to the entries at Dictionary.com, which are based on the 2006 Random House Unabridged Dictionary.

[3] To consider just the ones I have most direct knowledge of, from having contributed to debunking them:

- A brief self-esteem intervention allegedly boosted academic performance among Black but not White students (purportedly an instance of "Stereotype Threat").

- Girls with more feminine names supposedly performed worse and had less interest in the sciences.

- An all-over-the-place article by Ben Barres suggested a variety of silly causes for the overrepresentation of males in math, science, and engineering.

In the first case, much of the hard data was sequestered in "online supplemental files," which is like placing the footnotes for one book in another, so that few who even bothered to read the original article (already few in number) would be able to judge for themselves whether the authors' interpretations followed from the data. In the second case, the popular press and the blogosphere touted the findings of the study before it was even available in print or online, forcing all participants in the discussion to just shut up and take the author's word for it that the findings were real.

[4] It's true that, in their infancy, these Open Access sources do not contain all, or even a majority, of what an interested person may want. Still, PLoS contains several of the pioneering articles that document natural selection in human beings within "recent" time periods. And MIT's Open CourseWare site features full video lectures, problem sets with answers, exams with answers, and computer aids, for the more essential courses in a field (such as differential equations and linear algebra in math). And many others contain at least problem sets, exams, and lecture notes. Really the only thing the student must supply is the textbook, but they typically sell for only $50 used at Amazon. In fact, MIT Prof. Gilbert Strang has made his very readable textbook covering all three semesters of calculus, plus answers to all problems, available for free in pdf form: download it here.


  1. Some data on the vaunted smart set, college students:
    Male college students spend 11.5 hours per week playing video and computer games.
    84% have televisions (Whether this means at home or in their room, or in their residence hall, I don't know) Source: http://www.harrisinteractive.com/news/allnewsbydate.asp?NewsID=773
    According to Nielsen, college students watch an astounding 24.3 hours per week Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/20/business/media/20nielsen.html?ei=5090&en=1f16787e644d9d08&ex=1298091600&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss&pagewanted=print

    I just finished my first year at college. When I first got there, I was extremely disappointed by the dearth of intelligent people - people who can carry on substantive conversations. I found few to none. The people of whom I speak weren't representative of the school, but I suspect everyone else is about as unintellectual. Perhaps it's only the schools percieved as nerdy or eccentric with a number of such people, like Reed and Chicago. Also, I rarely see people ask questions out of curiousity in classes, at least in the big ones. More like, "what's on the test and how do we do it?"

    It's fun to speculate about why students are so damn philistine, but there are so many possible reasons/influences. TV? Careerists?

    Given the popularity of television among students, it's not exactly minimal or unremarkable to give it up. Admittedly, I told someone today I don't have a working TV, when asked how I had time to read. My physics professor struck up a conversation with me when I left out a Henry James book.

  2. I'm a bit confused. You're asserting that the internet is a tool, neither good or bad, yet at the same time saying that use of the internet is a bad thing that the responsible will attempt to wean themselves from.

    Wikipedia and the blogosphere allow for dallying in subjects that are not one's area of expertise. I want to stay abreast of the major developments in nanotechnology, but reading OA scholarship on it would require an inordinate amount of time and effort for something I'm certainly not going to contribute anything to. The on-demand, instant access, interactive blog dynamic makes it superior to all other media forms for this sort of learning. I don't see this as a personal vice--without it I would simply know nothing about several subject areas that I'm at least familiar with.

    If I replaced time digesting the IRC with reading the comments on some blogger's post about the KPMG 'scandal', I'd agree with you. But the wiki/blog use takes place outside of the corporate setting.

    It may be that, not being involved in research, we're talking past each other. If your post is directed at 2% of the population, then I suppose I've no contention, either.

  3. The point is that there's an easy-to-miss danger of too much dallying -- see the comments in the GNXP post on Wikidiction. It's easy to get sucked into dilly-dallying stuff when it's not obvious, and squander the years in your life when your mind is sharpest.

    I'm not skewering the internet generally, but targeting the faux iconoclasm exemplified in the Steve Jobs quote and the first two anti-TV websites (one an Onion parody). You know how you get angry when some moron keeps bringing up Jim Crow as if it still existed, rather than having been extinguished long ago? I feel that way when people rail against any bygone menace. It distracts from what real threats there are.

    You visit the good parts of the blogosphere, like someone who watches classical music on PBS or something. But think of how much time most people waste reading an average sampling of blogs -- it's worse than TV.

    You've still got most or all of your 20s left -- learn the lessons that the people in that Wikidiction thread have learned the hard way! Like I said, it's OK in small doses, but you really have to watch yourself. Keeping abreast of this or that is fine, but spending too much time on Wikipedia lulls you into thinking you know more than you really do.

  4. ...and squander the years in your life when your mind is sharpest.

    And when is that?

    You know I was kidding about emo. No need to take it personally.

    AED is an over the top parody site. The footnote wasn't meant to be taken seriously.


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