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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.