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Summary:

Is the Internet making us smarter or dumber? Authors Nick Carr and Clay Shirky have dueling essays appearing in The Wall Street Journal this weekend that look at opposing sides of that provocative question — but the bottom line is that they are likely both right.

Is the Internet making us smarter or dumber? The Wall Street Journal put together a couple of provocative essays this weekend looking at that question: one from Nick Carr, whose most recent book “The Shallows” argues that the Internet is making us less attentive and in general less intelligent (Wired has an excerpt here), and the other from Clay Shirky, whose latest book “Cognitive Surplus” argues that the Internet is on balance a good thing for both individuals and society. So who wins this debate? Arguably only the reader, who might find something worthwhile in both viewpoints. Certainly neither one wins by a landslide — primarily because both of them are right.

To be fair, Carr’s essay is the most pointed, in that he refers to scientific studies that show the brains of multitasking Internet users change as a result of their behavior, and says that such changes are making them less intelligent (at least according to some definitions of that word). Among other things, they are described as being weaker in “higher-order cognitive processes” such as “mindfulness, reflection, critical thinking and imagination” (just how someone measures a quality like mindfulness or reflection isn’t clear). The scattered and shallow thinking of Internet users is contrasted with the virtues of book reading, because Carr’s says the written page “promotes contemplativeness.”

Shirky’s piece has less obvious research in it, and more of an impressionistic take on what digital media is doing to us as a society. His main point is that a tool like the Internet — just like its closest relative in terms of disruption, the Gutenberg printing press — brings with it both the good and the bad, and the two can’t necessarily be untangled from each other. The increased freedom to create that the Internet brings with it, he says, “means increased freedom to create throwaway material, as well as freedom to indulge in the experimentation that eventually makes the good new stuff possible.” In other words, Shirky argues that we will become smarter as a society, if not individually.

But Carr’s conclusion isn’t just that the Internet is making us stupid — in an interview with The Atlantic, he says that while there may be benefits to the new digital age of media consumption, it will make us “less interesting,” presumably because we won’t be having as many contemplative moments. This reminded me of my friend Paul Kedrosky’s recent essay at The Edge about the benefits of the Internet on his thinking process. In it, he argued that while he was concerned about the impact of the Internet on his ability to “think big, deep thoughts,” he had come to the conclusion that it was on balance a positive thing, because of the way it allowed for more “collisions and connections” between ideas — some of which inevitably led to new ones. As he wrote:

The democratization of connections, collisions and therefore thinking is historically unprecedented. We are the first generation to have the information equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider for ideas. And if that doesn’t change the way you think, nothing will.

Anyone who has spent much time on the Internet — especially using tools such as Twitter or any other social media outlet — can probably sympathize with Carr’s comments about how has felt himself becoming more distracted by ephemeral things, more stressed, less deep. And the idea that multitasking is inherently impossible is also an attractive one. But are these things making us dumber, or are they simply challenging us to become smarter in new ways? I would argue they are doing both. To the extent that we want to use them to become more intelligent, they are doing so; but the very same tools can just as easily be used to become dumber and less informed, just as television can, or the telephone or any other technology, including books.

So is the Internet making us smarter or dumber? I would say the correct answer is yes. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user rstrawser

By Mathew Ingram

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  1. Media changing our thinking, isn’t new since the adaption of TV. But like the bookpress does the internet bring knowledge to the masses, and offers choices. One of these choices is to withdraw from media consumption, including internet and television.
    In the end society becomes smarter, and it’s members too. Don’t forget Plato was just one of the happy few with knowledge, training and time on hand.

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  2. openuniverse Sunday, June 6, 2010

    there are a lot of annoying, silly conclusions being drawn from nick carr’s work. kudos to the author of this article for putting things back in perspective, for elaborating, and bringing clay shirky into it too.

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    1. Thanks, openuniverse — appreciate the comment.

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  3. carr’s point is deep – and i am with him on this. i think the internet, more specifically hyperlinks inherently are meant to make one “jump from one place of information to another” – this is an inherent barrier to deep thought and contemplation. the internet has made us consume, flit from quickly reading a story on NYtimes, then checking a twitter update and then a facebook status update – basically you get sucked i but it leaves one with a very superficial experience.
    i read the NYTimes online every day but whenever i get my hands on the print version i have a much deeper and satisfying experience and also a fulfilling one and often a reflective one

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    1. I agree that jumping from place to place can be distracting and get in the way of serious thought — but as Paul Kedrosky observes, it can also make connections between related things that bring us to new conclusions or ideas, and that is valuable.

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      1. But Kedrosky’s answer to this relies on the supposition that new is better than deep. If it’s a choice between deep understanding and appreciation for N things and shallow understanding of xN things, I’ll take deep. More and new isn’t always better.

        Ideally, of course, I’d like both – lots of new ideas that are deeply explored. What I’m worried about is that we will read book length works less and that we become a culture that flits from new idea to new idea, not ever really stopping to explore because deep, critical exploration is hard and not as fun as the new shiny over there.

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  4. That’s the wrong question to ask. “I would pose it as “Do people let themselves become dumb by (mis) using the Internet?” And which aspects/parts of the Internet?
    I have trouble with discussions that revolve around a generic “Internet”. To me that doesn’t exist as such. Instead, the Internet is comprised of various systems and applications (or “affordances” in info-speak, and, each of those target different users and uses. Whether one lets themselves become “stupid” through the use of any of such systems, well, that’s a human agency question, and a psychological issue, not a technical one.
    By the way, I love the image at the beginning of this article: “only stupidity and the universe are infinite”!

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  5. Larry Ray voss Sunday, June 6, 2010

    Your article exemplifies the Internet making us dumber.

    Jes sayin

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  6. Steve Kuker Sunday, June 6, 2010

    It all comes down to content, one has the riches of the world at their fingertips but on that same plain one has an incredible amount of filler. It is like food, you can eat the kinds of healthy foods that are good for your body, or you can eat junk.

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    1. That’s a great comparison, Steve — thanks for the comment.

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  7. Nick carr is full of shit. What he says is basically 21th century luddism.

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  8. I think that it is because all of these celebrity sites that exist that really have no substance at all

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  9. I love these kinds of discussions because it reminds me that things never change. As Clay Shirky points out in his piece, similar claims to an onset of stupidity have been made from time immemorial going back to the invention of the printing press. I’m sure sage scientists were able to point to statistics as to Rock Music’s effect in making teenagers stupid. So it’s no surprise that with widespread adoption of the internet claims of increased stupidity are being made. However, if there was any invention or device that led to a reduction in intellectual activities-along with a reduction in physical activities- it would have to be the television. Let’s not decry the woes of our connected culture. Rather sing its praises. I’m not a scientist but one thing many studies point to is the internet’s ability to empower those who use it–through both access to information and access to individuals. But hey, if you use a hammer and you smash your thumb with it, some people would say the hammer made them do it.

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    1. yup videogames made us stupid, before that the tv made us stupid and before that i think somebody said the radio made us stupid.

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  10. Internet just enables and empowers people. It allows dumb people to become dumber and smart people to become smarter.

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