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Some Sanity in the 'Web Makes Us Dumber' Debate

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Nick Carr and Clay Shirky recently waged a head-to-head battle — via dueling Wall Street Journal essays — over whether the Internet is making us smarter or dumber. Carr reiterated some of the points made in his recent book “The Shallows,” saying the web continually distracts us, and that this distraction is making us less smart (and less interesting). Shirky, however, argued that the explosion of media the web has brought us contains a lot of noise, but also has a lot of value for society.

Shirky’s side of this debate has now gained significantly more momentum, thanks to a New York Times op-ed piece by Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology and author of “The Stuff of Thought.” Pinker makes it clear that he believes human beings are more than capable of adapting to the current flow of constant digital information and stimulus, just as they adapted to other forms of media — including books (which some researchers believe are just as alien to our brains as video games and the Internet, if not more so).

New forms of media, Pinker says, “have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.” But more than that, he takes issue with the idea — put forward by Carr, with support from several researchers — that Twitter and the Internet in general are making us dumber by literally rewiring our brains, so that we can no longer think deep thoughts. Says Pinker:

As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.

As Nick Bilton notes in a separate NYT piece, while Carr and other critics point to research that says our brains are being impaired by multitasking and the Internet, similar research could just as easily be used to prove that walking in New York is hazardous to the brain. Pinker notes that the things Carr values so much about the non-Internet world — the deep thinking, contemplative moments and other elements that describe an intellectual life — are no more natural or commonplace than playing video games all day or checking Facebook and Foursquare every 10 minutes. As he puts it:

It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

In other words, the Internet and social media such as Twitter or Facebook, and video games — and every other form of what Carr and others see as digital distraction — are not necessarily making society dumber. In fact, Pinker concludes that “far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.”

Post and thumbnails courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Dooley

14 Responses to “Some Sanity in the 'Web Makes Us Dumber' Debate”

  1. as i point out in “principles of applied stupidity,” “smart” and “stupid” are subjective judgments of what we approve of/ disapprove of. whether the internet or eating fish or going to university makes you smarter or dumber is entirely a matter of opinion.

  2. Amy Gorin

    And as any researcher will tell you, Brian, correlation is not causality. Yes, I can believe students have a lower attention span now than they did 20, 30, whatever years ago. I can also believe that the expectation of, not only universal literacy, but universal high school, and even college, graduation, is something very new.
    When did it become normal for all teenagers to be on the academic track? When did it become normal for school children to have no recess, no music, even no outside play time after school?
    The Internet is a symptom, not the disease.

  3. Okay, so lets look at what the internet has become. A repository of information. Now information may be good, and information may be bad.But if you no longer have to use your head to figure something out then you have indeed ‘dumbed’ people down.

    By the same token I have met many people who are not interested in going out and learning for themselves in the first place. So a resource that allows them to pull up a figure or fact willy-nilly may indeed seem like a good thing.

    There was a challenge I gave to some students of mine to write a report. I gave half the use of the internet and the other half I forced to go into the library ( I know mean of me isn’t it ) The children that went to the library finished faster and had MUCH more diverse papers then the ones that only used the internet. Most of their papers where identical in theme and structure. Now I know that is only anecdotal but still interesting.

    • I agree that is interesting, Forrest. The Internet definitely makes it easier for students in particular to be lazy, because there is so much content out there free for the taking. That makes it even more necessary for teachers and parents to make them think critically about what they find on the web. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I think what all of these various writers and thinkers have missed is that they’ve assumed we are all alike. I personally see myself becoming much smarter, much more mature (probably because I am regularly conversing with, reading and thinking about) the work of people older and smarter with myself.

    The point is that the frenetic pace and the specific tools of social media probably effect people in different ways. To the uninterested non-contemplative person, they become even less focused. But to those who are interested in deep analysis, they simply use these tools so that that priority is in the fore front, by following less people on Twitter for instance, or culling the number of blogs they read regularly.

    Pinker, Carr, Bilton, et al have not talked about, and I am suggesting they should, that there is not a blanket generalization for how these things are effecting us. It effects different people in different ways. And each of the above is correct in some way.

  5. Twitter is not making us smarter or less smart… it is an addictive play tool used for broadcast communication or personal messaging. The problem with twitter is that it’s temporarily addictive like any gadget. It can sometimes be used to attract internet surfers to a particular web like any social media tool, so it does have some worthwhile uses. Will that make people less smart because they did not have more time to “deep think”? That sounds somewhat ridiculous.

  6. Brian DeFrancesco

    Any veteran (25-years or more)teacher will tell you, attention spans dropped drastically will the widespread popularity of TV, and yet again withe video games and the Internet.

  7. Carr is often insightful, and it’s good to hear skeptical voices to offset the rah-rah boosterism of technology PR, but he has this annoying tendency to tray and stake out the Next Buzzword, and then marketing the hell out of it. He is doing so with “The Shallows” (an Atlantic Monthly article expanded to book length) or “delinkification”. Even his paper about Utility Computing (cloud computing) was flawed, with a ridiculous analogy to electrical power. I am this close to flipping the bozo bit on him.

  8. Brian DeFrancesco

    Pinker dismisses the debate by noting television was once regarded as a threat to our collective and individual intelligences. Sorry to dismay you, Pinker, but TV DID and DOES contribute to a “dumbing down” of our society. And video games really do shorten attention span. Just look at readership of newspapers. Try to find more than two or three young people you know that actually look for books to read. Human brains did change for the better with the advent of the the printed word and its subsequent widespread distribution, just as they will suffer as the printed word vanishes from our lives. The Internet does not tend to encourage reflection and analysis. On the contrary, it seems obvious it is contributing to “bumper-sticker”/sound-bite (mis)apprehension of complicated matters as well as primitive (Yes, primitive) communication. Witness the monosyllabic, unimaginative ubiquity of such responses as “ROFLMAO.”

    • Brian, you appear to have taken several somewhat random facts which may be more or less true (or not) and connected them incorrectly. Falling readership of newspapers is much more due to those same young people you decry as dumb finding the same information you pay for in your newspaper in free online forms. Video games encourage multi-tasking skills, while online games can promote teamwork and social skills when used properly. TV can easily be an excellent source of information (just look to Carl Sagan, Cesar Milan – the best reality show on tv, and numerous other shows).

      The printed word is NOT vanishing from our lives. Overall book sales dropped about 4.5% over the last 2 years primarily due to economic problems, but e-book sales (OH GOD!! Books on COMPUTERS?!?! Whatever SHALL WE DO?!) rose more than 17%. Children’s book sales are up as are higher education book sales, and basic trade book sales are essentially flat. People are definitely NOT running away from reading to watch tv or any of the other evils of modern life that you’d like to demonize.

      So why don’t you step away from the evil machine that you’re upset about and go out to play a little. Come back in when you’ve calmed down.