Dumbing down or wising up? The Daily Telegraph mentioned that we are the bigger fools to think everyone around us are getting dumber than us. The Economist has had a very interesting debate recently, one side vociferously arguing that we are all smartening up, championing the role of internet in enlightening people, while the other side says that the internet is the cause of a dumbing down society because people started to stop reading books. The latter’s tone in her argument does come off as pompous, bombastic, arrogant, detached and elitist. However objectionable I found the latter’s tone and insinuation to be, I was still fascinated by the ability of the latter to present rather substantively persuasive argument though I am still firmly rooted in the notion that we are wising up.
Let’s take Malaysians as an example, are Malaysians now more politically aware than four decades ago? As much as many of us would like to moan that we are not politically astute enough, I believe it has been a tremendous progress in awareness. The evidence is for everyone to see, the growth of Malaysian political blogs which would otherwise have remained stagnant has it not been attributed to the growth of readership or the stunning turn around of the opposition gains in the last general election. An increasing number of people have left the ‘Plesantville’ delusion, so no, we are not dumbing down, I would concur that we are wising up, all thanks to internet. We are not alone, the Singaporeans, the Kenyans, the Americans, all of them have joined the fray too. Ironically, while the ‘dumbing down’ supporter has vehemently defended the integrity and the need for ubiquity of the printing press in making us ‘cultured’, I doubt many would agree with her. It is the monopoly of the printing press by some ‘omnipotent’ forces that have made us ‘dumb’, but not anymore.
Let’s take the Cantopop scene as an example of wising up, not that it was that dumb anyway. Listeners now are insatiable for something edgier, funkier with more novelty hence the existence of a new generation of stars like David Tao, Wang Li Hom or Jay Chou (not that I like him anyway because he appears to mumble unintelligibly through his lyrics rather than singing, but I guess that is what makes him appear edgy to other listeners). My point is that these stars are there because they help to challenge and stretch the knowledge of musical realm people have grown familiar and weary with. Wising up is after all hunger for knowledge isn’t it?
It has been so much easier to access information online, with just a click, I can access to dictionary, encyclopaedia, latest up-to-date journals, music and erotic art. Oops, did I say erotic? I mean exotic. It has been said that in the past, being a single-minded in any field of knowledge has been considered deep and insightful, though there is a growing consensus it is now considered rigid, inflexible and aloof. How do I know more about music other than what were imposed onto me by radio DJs and MTV VJs? Internet! Through it, I learn more about say Astor Piazolla, Yanni, Modern Talking, Bob Marley, Mana, Frank Sinatra, the Big Bands and Latin Pop alongside the mainstream music. These are not what I can get from my normal radio and TV channels.
With internet, it is becoming increasingly cheaper to obtain knowledge. We don’t have to pay about RM20 every week to subscribe to an issue of The Economist, we can do that through the internet without paying any subscription fees. On the up side of internet participation, we could even participate and present arguments in an Oxford style debate on The Economist without actually attending Oxford University. Now who dares say one is not an Oxford intellectual? Also, the Economist gains its revenue from online advertisement, more profit if there are more visitors to the website. If we are dumbing down, The Economist would have gone insolvent since there wouldn’t be online advertising revenue. In fact, since information is now free on internet, The Economist actually gained more readership.
Just because I rarely read books do not make me any less intelligent or less cultured than those who read autobiographies of David Beckham or Gordon Ramsay, or the literary classical composition of Charles Dickens and Anna Sewell. I may know more about quantum mechanics, astrophysics or the string theory from New Scientist, but does that make me culturally inferior to someone who has read Homer’s Illiad or studied the etymology of Latin words? Culture is ever-changing. Before the coming of the printing press, oral story-telling from bards was a culture before it was replaced by the printing press. Need I say more? Besides, culture is not about sticking to tradition, if sticking to tradition is a prerequisite for culture, there would be no culture at all since tradition is relative to time period. Culture is about the ability to learn to appreciate and understand the true work of art and knowledge of all time periods including the present. Living in the past is not culture, it’s Amish.