Why We Aren’t “Dumbing Down The Web”

Professor Andrew McAfee, from Harvard Business School, wrote an article last week entitled, Wising Up About Dumbing Down. I have read many similar observations about ‘dumbing down the web’ in the past so I didn’t feel compelled to comment at first. But I went back and read the article again a day later. And again, a day after. Finally, after fours days, I felt that I had to comment and hoped that by doing so I would no longer feel compelled to keep returning to his article.

Two days later, I find myself writing about it. Most of what he had to say resonated. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read along;

First of all, there’s the stuff that that appears to be the product of a truly feeble mind. As the introduction to Time’s Person of the Year story put it: “Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.” Like most of us, I’ve many times stared slack-jawed at my screen, amazed that someone took the time to click the ‘comment’ button, type away, and pass the CAPTHCA, yet couldn’t find the time to be aquaint themselves with any linguistic, grammatical, or cultural guidelines for self-expression.

I agree with nearly every point he made but something was troubling me about the overall premise of the article. So like a tongue with a freshly chipped tooth to ponder, I kept returning to reread his thoughts.

Last night, at 2:23 AM, it hit me. While Prof. McAfee made his points about Shakespeare and Borat and how content creation tools “aren’t eroding two very deep-rooted human capabilities: the desire and ability to create complex works, and the desire and ability to consume them“, it’s the unstated but logical assumption in ‘wising up about dumbing down’ that is in error. No person or group is ‘dumbing down the web’.

No person or group is dumbing down the web. This is especially true given that Prof. McAfee is talking about the influx of user-generated content. ‘Dumbing down’ assumes intent and governance. A group must be identified that needs dumbed down content. Then ‘smart’ content needs to be made easier for the poor populace to digest. That’s not what is happening.

What we’re seeing is a reflection of society. No one is taking the Canterbury Tales and turning them into some monosyllabic, easily digested stories for the masses. War and Peace isn’t being turned into Dick and Jane. Instead, we get Dick in a Box.

Libraries have known about this sort of ‘dumbing down’ for years. That’s why they carry one copy of Animal Farm and forty copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

The truth may be far more frightening, as a society, we’re simply not as advanced as we’d like to believe. With a world of technology at our fingertips, videos of drunken, nearly naked pop stars dominate  our search for enlightenment.

If you visit Pompeii you won’t find ancient graffiti or engraved directions pointing to the ancient libraries or universities, but you will find phallic symbols still pointing the way to ancient brothels long since vanished.


  1. >The truth may be far more frightening, as a society, we’re simply not as advanced as we’d like to believe.

    Sad but probably true. I’ve shared some similar sentiments after I read a book called “chimpanzee politics”. While it was fascinating from a nature point of view, reading about the chimps at a certain point you realized how much “bob” and “mary” in the cubicles next to you acted very similar to the chimps.

  2. reesh

    This and McAffe’s post smack of intellectual elitism. I will concede that there really are a lot of “dumb” people in the world. Nothing new there. There have always been dumb people, and there likely always will be. So we’re seeing a migration of said people to the online world because of improvements to and widespread adoption of easy-to-use technology. Bummer for us smart, early-adopter, technically savvy, old school residents of the web, right? There goes the neighborhood.

    I disagree.

    While everyone has the right to label something as dumb or not, you labeling it as such doesn’t make it so. I’ve scored well above average on IQ tests, have read many of the classics for enjoyment, and have enjoyed countless hours in coffee shops practicing intellectual kung foo with members of the intelligentsia. But, I also think that many of the “dumb” homemade videos posted by these “idiots” are just funny and fun to talk about. I think art can be an offensive term, and I favor graffiti over much of what passes as art. I love to watch “dumb” cartoons, especially when their central characters involve a milk shake, a box of fries, and a wad of meat.

    Bottom line is that people have different tastes. Calling something that someone else creates “dumb” is well, childish.

    Thanks for a great blog, by the way.

  3. DG

    Reesh, I think you and I agree more than we disagree.

    >>I also think that many of the “dumb” homemade videos posted by these “idiots” are just funny and fun to talk about.

    Me too! To this day I watch Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, South Park, King of the Hill, and on and on.

    I think you and I would be much closer to agreement on what is ‘dumb’ if we used ‘ignorant’ in its place. By ignorant I mean videos of people assaulting each other, abusing people of different colors, creeds, sizes, etc. Or someone calling a gas station attendant stupid simply because that person works at a gas station.

    But what I really, truly mean by ‘dumb’, is complacent. Complacency applies to all. Even Harvard profs.

  4. reesh


    My wife actually brought up the same points over dinner tonight, and got me second guessing my haste in commenting. I see that I misunderstood your post while jumping the gun to comment. Thanks for taking the time to clarify your point.

  5. DG

    Misunderstandings are typically the fault of the writer, not the reader. ; ) Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s a busy world.

    At a forum I frequent, I’ve argued quite forcefully over the years that the “Foo” postings are what bind the community. People may come for the professional discussion, but they stay because of the personal conversation. In an office or faculty setting, it is the water cooler discussions that afford people the opportunity to get to know each other, share their humanity if you will.

    It might not happen over the water cooler, but informal conversation is where the Oxford don and the mechanic from Bristol may learn that they both enjoy Bukowski.

  1. 1 Graywolf’s Delicious Blog » Blog Archive » links for 2007-01-03

    […] Why We Aren’t “Dumbing Down The Web” « Speaking Freely (tags: social.networks) […]

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