I wouldn't be a historian of the Internet had I not been trained as a historian of the book. Or I certainly would not have had the long historical perspective on this new tool and been able to see its possibilities, its dangers, and our responsibilities for teaching our students how to use it well. The alarmism and hysteria, though? That seemed all too familiar. When Nicholas Carr and others were sounding all the alarms about the evils that the Internet would cause--shallowness, distraction, loneliness, and the rest--it sounded to me pretty much like Thomas Jefferson's early assessment of the novel. Parallel to Carr's famous indictment of Google, Jefferson was sure novels made you stupid.
Like many pundits in that era when steam-powered presses and machine made paper and ink made cheap books available to the masses, including working class men and women, he was alarmed that, given this amazing new tool--mass printing--what most people wanted to read were entertainments, mostly sensational novels featuring ordinary men and women pretty much like themselves, often doing extraordinary if improbable things.
Here's what he had do say about novels in a letter to N. Burwell, written in 1818. I wonder what he would have to say about the Internet?
"A great obstacle to good education is the ordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life."--Thomas Jefferson to N. Burwell, 1818