Some Sanity in the 'Web Makes Us Dumber' Debate

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