Sitting with my leg propped into a cast these last two weeks has given me pause to reflect on the pros and cons of web-based education - more specifically what I can and cannot do with my classes meeting on campus 35 miles away in Edwardsville. Some of America's leading universities (Stanford, MIT) are racing to post their courses, and some of these web courses are being viewed by hundreds of thousands worldwide. Websites such as khanacademy.org are adept at whole fields of internet instruction. Clearly Internet education holds great promise.
But we've been here before. Seventy years ago we watched breathlessly as television opened doors to Jeffersonian ideals of universal education. And occasionally television has lived up to these goals, as PBS viewers can attest. Maybe you criticized NBC's coverage, but who was sorry that the 2012 Olympics were televised?
Still, most television aims at the lowest common denominator, which it seems constantly to lower. In some households, a screen blaring continuous nonsense does much to disrupt interaction. Television advertising has not only undermined the tone of political discourse, but has increased the cost of political campaigns, restricting the field and forcing candidates to depend on donations from special interests.
So yes, the Internet is opening educational portals, and the Arab Spring linked social media to democratic revival. Yet the item most accessible through social media and the Internet is distraction from the problems and people of most immediate importance to each of us. Most of the time, the Internet is a diversion. Time and attention have turned out to be our most precious resources, and it is these that television and the Internet aim to seduce.
Don't get me started on cell phones.
What we have progressively sacrificed with these technological revolutions is contemplation, solitude, and direct interpersonal interaction. …