Does the Internet Makes Us Smarter or Dumber?

There are two excellent pieces in last weekend’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. One is how the internet is making us smarter, while the other one is how the internet is making us dumber (or more accurately, I think, more distracted).

In “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?” the author of the piece, Clay Shirky, talks about the Gutenberg press, the Reformation, self-publishing, Wikipedia, and other interesting ideas in making his point.

I really like this paragraph:

The present is, as noted, characterized by lots of throwaway cultural artifacts, but the nice thing about throwaway material is that it gets thrown away. This issue isn’t whether there’s lots of dumb stuff online—there is, just as there is lots of dumb stuff in bookstores. The issue is whether there are any ideas so good today that they will survive into the future. Several early uses of our cognitive surplus, like open source software, look like they will pass that test.

But I am not sure I agree with this thought (have you read anything written by Noam Chomsky?):

Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers. Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it’s our turn to figure out what response we need to shape our use of digital tools.

With interesting articles, I always like to check out what people are thinking. The comments in this piece are excellent; I like this one:

The internet is a tool…like anything else.

If you waste your time using the Internet to entertain yourself 24/7 to watch useless videos of cats playing the keyboard, sneezing pandas, to forward emails to coworkers that have absolutely no value then it probably won’t help you intellectually…But if you’re using it to take online classes, learn something new from Wikipedia, study and work hard using free course materials from MIT’s OpenCourseWare, watch an educational video on youtube (there are THOUSANDS of them), connect and network with people who have similar interests and aims as you, and overall harness the power of the internet for your edification, then there is no greater tool (than paying 50,000 and attending University, of course).

I couldn’t agree more: the internet is what you make of it, and perhaps a better question would be how we’re leveraging our resources to become smarter with the internet.

The author of the other piece, “Does the Internet Make You Dumber?” is Nicholas Carr, no doubt writing in The Wall Street Journal to promote his latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (the book is on my reading list). I think Carr’s piece does a better job of getting to the point:

When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking.

I think the internet is making us hunt for the quick fix: something that we can glance over and move on to the next great thing. Gone are the days when we sit down and actually read a book in its entirety (or say, a hundred pages), in one sitting. There is a purpose to signing off from the internet and participating in focused reading:

Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. The innate bias of the human brain, after all, is to be distracted. Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food.

My two main takeaways from the articles are:

  1. The internet isn’t necessarily making us dumber or smarter. It’s how we use our resources online to help us learn that ultimately matters.
  2. The articles, especially that from Mr. Carr, are misleading in their titles. I think a better question is: “Does the Internet Make us Distracted?” The answer, overwhelmingly so for most of us, is yes (don’t ask me how long it took me to type and publish this post)… Which I think leads to this question: now that we realize that the Internet does make us distracted, what are we going to do about it? If you’ll excuse me, I’m stepping away from the computer and grabbing that book on my bookshelf…

What are your thoughts on the two pieces? How has the Internet changed your life? I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

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