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Is the Internet making us smarter or dumber?

June 7, 2010

Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: Is the Internet Making us Stupid?, has been a catalyst for a dialogue on whether online media consumption is making us smarter or dumber.  Carr’s central argument, which he made recently on NPR, in the Atlantic, and in the Wall Street Journal, is that the internet is turning us into scattered, shallow thinkers.  Carr feels that we’ve sacrificed deep focus in exchange for quick answers.  We’re not reading as much as we’re scanning, looking at websites in an F-Shaped eye pattern for seconds at a time before making a snap judgment as to whether to read the content more carefully or (more likely) just move on to scanning other media.

The flip side of this, which Clay Shirky presents in WSJ and Sam Anderson presents in New York Magazine, is that our brains are just evolving to consume information in ways that are more appropriate to new technology.  Shirky compares the Internet  to other technological innovations like the printing press, which was also the subject of skepticism from intellectuals.  Edgar Allen Poe once complained, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”  Just as the Internet is rife with porn and bad home movies on YouTube, the printing press gave birth to all sorts of low-quality material.  Whether you’re in a book store, a record store, or online, Sturgeon’s Law – “90% of everything is crap” – seems to hold true.

The positive aspects of the web shouldn’t be understated.  Our ability to research has unquestionably improved.  Pulling a dozen articles on a single topic is a 10-minute Google search.  Our music collections are far more diverse and personalized.  But our distraction level is rising, and we’re switching channels constantly.  Focusing on single tasks for extended periods of time is more challenging, which is why Adderall use among students has skyrocketed.  I don’t share Carr’s pessimism that we’re losing the ability for deep focus, but it does take a more concerted effort than it used to.  I’ve lost track of how many times I checked my email while writing this short blog post.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe Buccino permalink
    June 13, 2010 12:12 pm

    I believe there is voice to be heard in this argument. Perhaps the social networking revolution has allowed those in power to maintain the status quo. Information overload, mind-numbing amounts of data, and mindless social chatter have enchained our minds, keeping us from advancing as a species. We should be using these new communication outlets to create a new world order, one that fits our continued evolution. Instead, we are using them to watch videos of dancing monkeys and motorcycle accidents.

    There is a belief within science that the neurocircuits in the brain’s middle gyrus (the function of our brain that allow us to quickly process and develop information) is continuing to expand. This expansion is perhaps the continuation of the evolution of the human species. Our media technology can chase evolution; allowing us to create new institutions, free from the outmoded belief systems that were relevant during the infancy of science. Religion, dated concepts of crime and punishment, imperialistic aims, ancient understanding of social behavior, would all be wiped away and replaced by a new a paradigm, based not on mysticism and fear of an invisible creature, but rather on science and our new understanding of the workings of the universe. This new axiom would allow for individual thought and expression.

    Some might argue that these new media outlets have enhanced our freedom and enabled our individuality. This, of course, is what the government (and those who run the people in the government) would like you to believe. With massive amounts of information being transmitted constantly, there is no time for independent thought, for discovery of new ideas (there are endless opportunities to research and exhaust old ideas) or for real, meaningful contact and dialogue.

    Numbers don’t lie. We are getting dumber each year, at each grade, in each category. The great potential for social networking to be used to improve the human condition is being wasted. This new means of communicating is developing a distracted, disconnected race of humans that may be losing the ability of interpersonal communication. We may be staring at an existence devoid of personal connection, where image replaces meaning and virtual communication replaces companionship. While I tend not to be alarmist in my views of the future, I believe that this may result in a society which devalues empathy for mankind with selfishness and a need for never ending personal gain. Once this trend begins it may be irreversible and horrifying.

  2. June 15, 2010 10:32 am

    Smarter or dumber? Depends on if you consider amassing truckloads of trivia-garbage to be intelligence. I’ve noticed a fair number of people who think that knowledge of lots of factoids and bits of trivia equates to intelligence. Go to any of your neighborhood bar trivia nights for an example of this. “Ooh he’s so smart! He knew who the last MLB player was to hit for a cycle in a World Series game!!” This trivia whiz probably couldn’t bake a frozen pizza without calling his mother.

    If that is the definition, then the internet is indeed making us smarter. Everyone can easily load up on surface-level “data” about their favorite topics, but only some use it as a tool to dig deeper.

    As an expansion of Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of people will use the internet for crap. The other 10% will truly make something of it.

    • Joe Buccino permalink
      June 15, 2010 6:54 pm

      Couldn’t agree more, Bredon. If we define intelligence as the ability to solve problems with sustainable solutions, think in the abstract, understanding the philosophical/historical underpinnings of the current state of our world (however we define “our world”), and evolve the ideas of existence and struggle, then the Internet is NOT making us smarter. However, the Internet is not solely to blame for American idiocy. There is plenty of blame to go around:
      – A national public school system aimed at establishing generations of obedient, uniamginative, soft-minded citizens who will not question authority.
      – Parents who believe their parental responsibility ends with putting their child on a school bus.
      – The laziness that is an inevitable result of excess and overreaching aims.
      The Internet, however, has a role in the current State of the Union. And it is not a positive one.

      • June 16, 2010 6:32 am

        There’s also a recent study suggesting that owning a computer raises kids’ computer skills, yet lowers their scores in math. It was conducted in Romania in conjunction with a program granting vouchers for computer purchases to low-income children:

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