Alex Goldman: Better Off in East Berlin

Background

GNIC hosted essay contests across the U.S. and Canada in fall 2009. Part of the prompt was:

[How does the internet change our] intelligence – our memories, attention spans, as well as our abilities to focus, reflect and synthesize? Specifically, shape your argument as a response to Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? and Jamais Cascio’s Get Smarter… [more]

Alex Goldman is a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Florida. He works at the Bureau of Economic and Business Research. You can contact Alex on his website.

Interview with Alex Goldman

Part 1

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Part 2

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Alex Goldman’s Essay

“As I was lying in bed the other night, I allowed myself to wonder what the biggest change in human society has been since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  One of my first memories is of visiting Epcot’s Tommorowland with my father around that same time and daydreaming about the flying cars that were then already ten years overdue by 1950s predictions.  It seems to many people that humanity has made strikingly little progress on these kinds of tough technical problems – witness the continued doomer/boomer debate over environmental issues.  Yet, we should be glad that information and communication technology (ICT) innovations are clearly where we have made the greatest progress.  Intensive users of Internet tools simply live lives very different from those of non-users.  I would argue that the lifestyle gap between East and West Germans twenty years ago was actually less than that which currently exists between so-called “digital natives” and those who have not yet embraced the ICT revolution.  It is not that they understand their societies in a fundamentally different manner, or that they are somehow exempt from basic human tendencies and market forces, but that they interact with the world in a wholly different manner.  Just look at how differently mobile phone “refusniks” must plan and navigate their social lives to stay in step with those who use this increasingly ubiquitous technology.  Just think about the ways in which dating behavior, and not just in urban/liberal areas, has been altered by text messaging.

My father was bullish on the future, and especially on early PCs.  Like many people, my parents believed that the then dominant forms of entertainment did not help one grow intellectually, but computers did.  Thus, television was restricted, video games were banned, and spending hours on the computer was encouraged.  Even at ten years old, I knew these were fatuous distinctions.  Granted, by all appearances it must have looked like I was training for future white-collar employment, but this was mostly an illusion.  Fantasy baseball leagues on Prodigy were a neat supplement to watching or playing the game, but they would not improve my understanding of statistics.  Real-time strategy games would not make me a brilliant military strategist.  I feel compelled to point out that while Playboy magazine does in fact come bundled with some good writing, Internet porn never does.  The bulk of what I learned about mental engagement with others (what I call “arguing the world”) didn’t come from electronic media, but from being forced to reading the local paper with my parents and discuss almost everything I read.  Today, I’m reading more than ever, what with all those RSS feeds and free access to Google Books.  Yet this increased intake has done little to improve my ability to engage with ideas at higher levels.  Despite not being free to read with the breadth of a digitally-enhanced Westerner, I must admit the distinct possibility that my mind might have been better off in East Berlin.”

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