In his recent book “Cognitive Surplus,” Clay Shirky, the New York University lecturer and Web pontificator, suggests that the shift from passive media consumption to active and democratized media creation means we will all work in previously impossible concert to build astonishing virtual cathedrals of the mind, solving the world’s problems instead of vegging out in front of “Gilligan’s Island.” As it happens, he even mentions Lolcats. Because Lolcats are both made and shared by the Internet-connected masses, they are examples of how Web tools have “bridged that gap” between passivity and activity. But this lasts only a few paragraphs (in which Lolcats are characterized as “dumb,” “stupid” and “crude”). He quickly pivots back to the more high-minded stuff about how “the wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource.”
Shirky is among the thinkers engaged in the popular debate over whether the Internet makes us smarter or dumber. And that question is interesting, but let’s face it: it’s not awesome. What Tim Hwang and his cohorts basically hit upon was the conclusion that, while that debate drags on, funny cat pictures and so on are really, really popular. And maybe another question to consider is what that means — to consider the Web not in terms of how it might affect who we become but rather in terms of how it reflects who we are.