Thursday, June 10, 2010

Does the Internet make you smarter or dumber?

The Washington Post in the past week published a binary pro/con arguing that the Internet makes us "smarter"/"dumber," starting with Clay Shirky's "smarter" piece, published on June 4. Shirky, a NYU prof, is just about to release a new book called "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age."

Nicholas Carr on the next day, June 5, authored the "dumber" piece. Carr recently released a book called, "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains."

Shirky also wrote a provocative book in 2005, called "Here Comes Everybody," that gives many examples of how openness on the Internet is making the world a better informed and mobilized place, maybe not a more capitalistically lucrative place, but a better place nonetheless.

I certainly feel Shirky has a much stronger base for his argument, which he presents solidly in his book, but his essay in this publication comes across as flippant, like the question is too bothersome to even answer.

Carr instead goes straight for the empirical and physiological hammer, saying "a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is also turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers."

His premise -- that we don't spend hour after hour alone with books anymore, which is making us evolve into idiots -- seems somewhat ironic contained in a generalist essay at less than 1,300 words. It also seems questionable at its core, since my understanding of the Internet is that it has inspired a resurgence in reading. All kinds of reading. News media organizations, for example, are attracting millions and millions of readers beyond what they ever were able to reach with print editions. Those organizations just can't make money off of it. So is this is capitalism issue, or a reading issue?

Shirky mentions the typical response by societies to foundation-shaking technologies. The first step is denial, of course, and that things were always better "in the olden days." Marshall McLuhan in his short booklet "The Medium is the Massage," has a passage about the pastoral myth generated by railroad expansion, in which the demonization of urban areas conveniently obscured the hardships of homesteading. The only medium I think truly lived up to those fears was television, just because of the way it was used by corporatists to turn people into consumption machines. When I watch public broadcasting, or the less commercialized sporting events, or even some of the benign content on the cooking channel, I can see the neutral skeleton of the machine, which could be used for so much more good. But this is not my rant about television. Back to the Internet, and does it make us smarter?

Shirky and so many others, including Henry Jenkins and Howard Rheingold, have made compelling cases in recent years about the superpowers that the Internet creates within us (and communally), giving us opportunities like never before to expend our cognitive surplus. But one aspect that doesn't seem to get much attention in this debate is the measuring tools of the non-monetary benefits (or costs).

In other words, how are we deciding if we are "smarter" or "dumber"? In what ways, and by whose yardstick?

Carr, for example, writes:

"Only when we pay deep attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it 'meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory,' writes the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel."

I'm not sure how Kandel is measuring this, but, at least from the context of the rest of Carr's piece, I suspect this is another look through the elitist paradigm that pooh-poohs any intellectual gains outside of the privileged class and its narrow measuring tools. People who are not Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientists might not necessarily need deep and meaningful thought about a particular topic to feel like they know enough (and more than they would have without the Internet) to move on to something else.

This overall debate is fraught with complexities that simply can't be addressed in a combined 2,500 words, which makes the format questionable. These pieces could, though, start a much more "meaningful" discussion about what we value in knowledge, how we measure intelligence and how technological determinism plays a part in our evolution as a species, even physiologically, as Carr suggests.

As a new media practitioner and educator, the answer to this question of whether the Internet is making us "smarter" or "dumber" seems simplistically stupid, which is maybe why Shirky gives such a half-hearted effort.

Carr's summaries of "empirical data" meanwhile, without transparent access to the methods and results of those studies, again, seems ironically shallow.

How about providing hyperlinks to the original studies, so we can judge Carr's conclusions for ourselves? Oh, wait, that would just make us dumber.


Craig Baehr said...

"Reading is an unnatural act" also struck me in this article. I'm not sure he was suggesting that our ability to read printed texts as they are formatted today evolved with the medium, but it is important to think that we evolved into print-based readers and are now de-evolving and into much different readers.

Brett Oppegaard said...

As this worthwhile discussion continues in the mainstream media, psychologist Steve Pinker (Harvard prof and author of "The Stuff of Thought," takes aim at the new media critics and their methodologies in his editorial. This piece is short and worth reading in whole, but this paragraph demonstrates the weaknesses of the "science" argument:

"Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how “experience can change the brain.” But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience."

Adam said...

"This overall debate is fraught with complexities that simply can't be addressed in a combined 2,500 words, which makes the format questionable."

Doesn't your criticism here reinforce Carr's argument? The form shapes the content. That's his argument in The Shallows. The Internet formats the content that eschews "complexities." It also forms our reading habits.

You've got a good blog here. I've interacted with Carr and Shirky in two blog posts. "The Internet is making us" and "Technological Optimists and Pessimists." I'd value your reactions.