Ghost Sites of the Web

Web 1.0 history, forgotten web celebrities, old web sites, commentary, and news by Steve Baldwin. Published erratically since 1996.

July 08, 2004

Your Computer is Making You Blind and Stupid

The BBC reports that an Australian study has correlated rising worldwide myopia rates with widespread computer and TV use. Item: in Singapore, 80 percent of Army recruits are now near-sighted, up from 25 percent in 1974.

The study leaves open the possibility that genetic factors may be responsible (males of Indian origin residing in Singapore suffer less), but "Computer Vision Syndrome" is already a rising concern among pediatric physicians in the U.S. and it is only a matter of time before some enterprising tort lawyer uses these facts to file a multibillion dollar claim against the computer industry on behalf of the world's short-sighted children.

OK, so it's fairly obvious that computers are ruining our eyes. But are they making us stupid as well? Well, according to a study released today by the National Endowment for the Arts, the answer is "maybe".

The large-scale study of 17,000 Americans "documents an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers. The rate of decline is increasing and, according to the survey, has nearly tripled in the last decade."

The NEA study doesn't mention the fact that 1982 just happens to be the year that TIME Magazine gave its Man of the Year Award to the personal computer. Nor does it note the peculiar coincidence that literacy's increasing rate of decline over the last 10 years overlaps with the spectacular rise of the Web.

To be fair, the study doesn't actually claim that Americans are reading less, only that we are reading less literature, and one might even argue that thanks to the Internet, Americans are reading more today than ever, at least if you count Spam e-mail messages, IM transcipts, Google text ads, Windows security bulletins, and Slashdot threads written by Linux partisans.

But the NEA study should finally lay to rest the ridiculous idea that the Web was going to revolutionize literacy by giving us all a modern-day equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. Computer literacy, given the status of a national goal during the Clinton Administration, is neither a substitute for actual literacy nor its necessary enabler.

We may all be reading more words and we may even be writing more of them (the NEA study cites a palpable rise in "creative writing" activities, even as the number of people taking "creative writing" courses has shrunk). The question is whether all of our typing, scanning, info-grazing and online chatting is anything more than a shallow, babbling brook of mind-stupefying anti-literature.

In automotive terms, we're driving more miles but arriving at fewer destinations; in nutritional terms, the Web and its blabbering electronic adjuncts have let us super-size our minds with empty calories, creating a nation of fat-brained bloggers who think that Captain Ahab was a rock singer from the 1970's.

Note: the NEA's study is available here:

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