Is the Internet killing the shared cultural experience?
When Theresa Moritz, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Toronto, asked a class of 22 first-year undergraduate students to watch for references to Jane Austen in their day-to-day diet of culture and entertainment, she expected the references would come flooding in.
Being herself immersed in a world of books, newspapers and television shows that made frequent mention of the 19th-century English novelist, Dr. Moritz thought her students in a class about Austen’s Pride and Prejudice would experience the same. But in a presentation to the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences this week, she said that instead of making the students aware of the ubiquity of Jane Austen, the exercise showed that living with the Internet as the centre of one’s cultural life puts one in a different universe from those who focus on more traditional media.
“I would have expected that they would have frequently reported to me references to [Austen]. I was expecting, moreover, that that experience would connect us, professor and students, in a shared awareness of interest in Jane Austen,” Dr. Moritz said in an interview Friday.
Instead, the 62-year-old instructor discovered that her world of print is a world apart from the digital lives of her students, prompting questions about the general knowledge and shared cultural experiences of young people raised in the age of Wikipedia.
“I was finding things regularly, at least once a week,” Dr. Moritz said. “And I found that rarely was there even one reference reported by a student.” The lack of print newspapers in their lives was an important factor in the contrast, she said.