Adventus Internetus and the Anaerobic Soul

by Stephen Healey, University of Bridgeport


As a teacher, I was not prepared to encounter students accessing information too fast. With the search-engine-ready internet, digitized journal content, lectures by podcast, ubiquitous wireless networks, and content-rich RSS feeds, not to mention libraries increasingly serving as portals to the Chutes and Ladders of a virtual canned-e-land of effortlessly available information instead of acting as repositories for good books, all that has changed. Before adventus internetus in 1994, students writing papers were schooled in the basics: the library, journals, and books. Taking advantage of these resources assumed things even more basic: reading skills, curiosity, and initiative. In 2006, I sometimes wonder whether these attributes have gone into hibernation in the cold, dark winter that curiosity is enduring.

My analysis can be expressed as a single overstated worry: everything that is wrong with learning can be summarized as The Internet (T.I.). By T.I., I designate all those readily accessible sources of information that can be searched using find-for-me terms, accessed at the touch of a mouse pad, and cited using a few deft mouse clicks. (Here’s an out-of-the-blue Google search: “GDP of Bangladesh;” I select “I’m feeling lucky;” I can now report—with no analysis, no effort, and less than complete confidence—that the “total net worth of the hundred richest Americans” is more than double the “GDP of Bangladesh;”; the first of 221 hits in a search of 0.38 second.) In 1993, it may have taken the President of the United States an hour to find what a ninth grader can pull up in 0.38 second. Just imagine President Clinton asking a presidential intern to “call the CIA and get this information, now.” (Google: “Monica Lewinsky;” my wife is in the room, so I resist clicking “I’m feeling lucky;” 2,880,000 hits in 0.55 second; that’s 13,300 times the number of hits for “GDP of Bangladesh” in only 0.17 second longer.) [Author’s note to readers: On April Fool’s day, 2006—no kidding—I originally conducted the Google search described in this paragraph. Since that time, the link above has become inactive.]

Even put to foolish use, T.I. has tremendous power, and we shoul  d not diminish it. But these ready-made sources of information differ from books, which require effort to find, effort to carry, effort to read, and effort to understand—effort, effort, effort. T.I. sources stream in effortlessly. Books are heavy to carry. These heavy and difficult sources provide aerobic conditioning to the soul. A colleague requires students writing papers for his classes to lug their sources (heavy bags of books) into his office. I am starting to appreciate that.

A moment of honesty. I like T.I. and use it frequently. With some good fortune, I will publish this jeremiad online. With even better fortune, many internet searches will retrieve this essay, and it will be widely read, or at least widely (as in world widely) available.

Some readers may wonder whether I am being inconsistent. In a sense, I am, but I learned to read books before adventus internetus. In fact, I still spend more time reading books than I do searching T.I. More to the point, I do not worry that students use T.I. Rather I fear that they use T.I. to reduce time they spend working on assignments, instead of using its time-saving features to spend more time reading, writing, and thinking. I also fear that students have become suspicious of the more time-consuming labors of reading and digesting non-virtual material. Reading through dusty pages and inhaling a century of dust mites have been disvalued in today’s need-for-speed, need-for-ease culture. In the past, a good term paper took a term to write. Now such a paper can be searched at cable-modem speed and tacked together in an afternoon. In the past, a term paper might have cited a dozen hard-found journal articles and might have referred to books that seemed more-or-less ancient, at least to an eighteen-year-old.

I remember reading a book in college that my professor assured me was a classic. Not missing the moral in his impassioned inflection, I beat a path to the library, found the book in the card catalogue (remember those?), and tracked down my quarry. At first, I immediately sat in the cold, dimly lit aisle and started reading. I understood almost nothing of what I read. But the very idea of a classic text motivated me.

In my dorm room, later that night, I noted that the book had last been taken out some fifteen years earlier. I laughed. Classic? My amusement notwithstanding, the professor was right.

I mention this story, because I fear that when aliens land on this planet in 2000-something that they will eventually go to the library to examine human classics. Cervantes, Shakespeare, Plato, and others. Not to mention the more scholarly sources of our wisdom. The Journal of the American Medical Association, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Science, Nature. And so on.

I imagine that some of these aliens will understand that books could be borrowed from the library, and that they will note that this borrowing plummeted after adventus internetus. Around this time, college students realized that T.I. contained everything one would ever want to know and that it would make it available without effort. I imagine that one of the more recondite aliens will propose in a scientific conference that human civilization collapsed because people stopped reading books.

She’d be more or less right. This is anaerobic soul syndrome (you do the acronym) and the death of civilization. Actually, I’m not so sure about this harangue, but the genre requires stating the rant directly, not hedging it with decorative qualifications.

What has happened to this generation of students? I ask this question, and am writing this essay, because I recently reviewed a lot of student papers as part of an assessment in the university where I teach. The papers had been collected in ePortfolios. T.I. made them readily available to me, and I could read them with minimal effort. I read a bunch.

A salient and disturbing finding was that these papers cited T.I. as nearly the sole source of information; assigned class readings were not even cited as sources. Ostensibly well-researched papers were awash with blue hyperlinks, the default color my version of Word assigns to hyperlinks. Less well-researched papers sported blue links about every third page. Virtually none of the papers referred to print journals or hard cover books. Those that used journal articles used copies made available through T.I. These citations were rare. My guess is that electronic journal articles are far harder to plunder for useful information.

Question: Is this a bad thing?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Can’t we say maybe?

Answer: No.

Put simply, when T.I. is used without reference to hard copy resources, learning is transferred to a realm that contains all the information one would ever want to know but that lacks context and the unwieldy substance of life. Context and life are those heavy and dense materials that surround nuggets of quotable sources and ideas in books and journal articles. Context and life get in the way of hyper-access, and learning context and life—materials that are learned along the way but not used in the papers—are a primary reason why college instructors assign papers. T.I. provides tools to decontextualize and plunder information. If a website contains too much information, a little ctrl-f searching can cut through the blather and disclose the info-nuggets. (Why does T.I. fail when I really need it? I vaguely recall a source that inspires this part of my diatribe, an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago that argued for the importance of inefficient, time-consuming means of learning. Alas, not even T.I. can call back the actual source.)

The papers that I read in the ePortfolio assessment, for example, referred to detailed accounts of the GDP of foreign countries, the percentage of abortions in backwater places, and literacy rates of developing countries. Most hyperlinks beamed this esoterica directly to my machine. In days of old, one might have read for hours to find information like that, and the act of reading provided much unwanted information along the way. This more time-intensive approach also encouraged analysis, the act of discriminating nuggets from fool’s gold. It seems that the pain of reading and the power of analysis have been replaced by the ease of searching and paradise paved in fool’s gold.

My review of these papers also suggested that the thesis statement is in decline. (Thesis declinus is a symptom of anaerobic soul syndrome.) Information turned up through T.I. searches often is assembled without an organizing argument or consistent perspective. My hypothesis is that pre-T.I. students were not morally superior to today’s students, but that in looking for relevant ideas they discovered their own points of view.

My nervousness above about a source I failed to pin down also seems not widely shared. Countless recent high-profile cases of plagiarism suggest that intellectual theft is on the rise. One reason is the ease of doing it. There is no longer a tree of knowledge of good and evil, but an entire forest. In the past, to steal a paper required retyping it. A paper can now be cut-and-pasted in a matter of seconds. But T.I. also equals the playing field: ease of stealing is matched by ease of proving theft. But I think plagiarism’s rise is more related to anaerobic soul syndrome than anything else.

At the deepest level, anaerobic soul syndrome is threatening the social construct of the individual. Net-savvy college-age users find it more difficult than their book-reading forebears to answer the question, who am I? I believe that the individual self is experienced as a metaphor of the collective experience of any generation. Today’s generation is authored by multiple sources, like an ongoing Wikipedia entry. I find evidence for this view in student reactions to ubiquitous information. Faced by a surge of information sources, students have difficulty recognizing where another person’s ideas end and where theirs begin. Plagiarism ultimately is a symptom of a deeper problem, one related to thesis declinus, and tied to anaerobic soul syndrome. Thesis declinus results when an information-barraged mind fails to imagine an alternative. Plagiarism draws from available information packages one that best seems to fit the assignment. Both are cries from the oxygen-starved soul.

I do not suggest that we ban students from using T.I. Its power is too great to ignore. We should ask our students to invest the time they save using T.I. back into reading, writing, and thinking. T.I.’s power, however, renders those time-consuming activities dubious.

Thus, I am pondering ways to thwart the power of T.I. I can—at least for now—assign papers that elude T.I.’s omniscience. No GDPs, no calorie indexes, no birth rate tables. Just queries about the self: who are you? Where are you going? What do you think? I can assign books—out-of-print books that have yet to be plundered by T.I.—and ask for analysis of them. Who are you in relationship to this book? Where are you going? Is it the same place as this obscure character in this anti-T.I. book?

Just last night, I was putting my two-and-a-half year old to bed. We read good books. Good Night Moon, I Love Trucks, Curious George’s Big Book of Curiosity. After reading these books, he pleaded, “Read them again, Daddy. Read them again.” I wondered whether T.I. would eventually diminish his curiosity.