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The Smarter Versus Dumber Debate, Revisited June 6, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Just when I thought this debate was complete, there it was again, in big bold letters, on the front of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal – Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?  Of course, Nicholas Carr is on the affirmative side of that debate, paired against Clay Shirky.

Carr takes the position that the Internet makes us dumber.  He focuses on the distraction caused by embedded links, multiple browser windows, and the overall availability of information to cause us not to focus.  We scan more, but retain less.

Shirky argues that the Internet makes us smarter.  He agrees that, like any significant leap of technology, it created chaos and mediocrity.  However, he points out that in history, order has always come out of chaos.  Using the invention of the printing press as an example, he notes:

“Novels, newspapers, scientific journals, the separation of fiction and non-fiction, all of these innovations were created during the collapse of the scribal system, and all had the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the intellectual range and output of society.”

The real problem with Carr’s thesis is that most of us aren’t deep thinkers to begin with (and weren’t before the Internet, either).  We retain little of what we experience, and have always done so.  We watched TV, as Shirky notes.  TV isn’t a distracting activity, but it is a passive one, and one that I suspect both debaters would discourage.

In my youth, despite a decidedly blue collar upbringing, I was a classic nerd.  Before I hit my teens, I devoured the two sets of abridged encyclopedia made available by my parents.  Once I had a driver’s license, I consumed the resources of the nearby Carnegie Public Library, and was still not very well-read or educated (and knew it at the time).

But the Internet provides so much more!  It affords us a far greater amount of information than was ever possible forty years ago.  The question that Carr may ask is whether I avail myself of the expanded compendium of works, and the answer is most decidedly yes.  The way you improve your knowledge and experience today is on the Internet.

To be fair, Shirky’s argument is based on logic and to some extent selective interpretation of the past, while Carr cites a number of behavioral research results supporting his thesis.  However, it’s not clear to me that the research cited by Carr is even related to his argument, let alone supportive.

Incidentally, as you might expect in the age of the Internet, the online version of this debate (links above) includes a survey in which readers can answer yes or no to the question of whether the Internet makes us smarter or dumber.  As of the time of this writing (a day after the story was posted, 3242 people had responded; two-thirds agree with Shirky, and one-third Carr.

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Comments»

1. Cathy Streiner - June 11, 2010

The Internet’s ability to make us smarter—or more knowledgeable, actually—probably depends on the individual’s propensity and desire to retain information versus looking it up again if it’s departed from memory. It’s likely that the supreme effort of recalling three keywords to do a search (I admit to this some days!) is in great contrast to what humans stored in memory years ago—but it is what we make it. Whether or not we can become smarter, the ready availability of information probably makes us lazier. Those three keywords might tax the brain, but the body is suffering in a different way for lack of movement. We just weren’t designed to learn from an electronic screen. Time saved via the Internet is often consumed at a gym because we tend to be more stationary and sedentary. Once upon a time, a person might walk or bike to the library to mine stores of knowledge. Learning came more slowly, but maybe the high price made retention more important. Perhaps we don’t value the knowledge because it’s cheap and 24×7. Our near-universal, immediate access gives us vast opportunities, but maybe we have to be smarter to use it and simultaneously keep the rest of us healthy and functioning as well. Could it be that both mental and physical stagnation are dual dangers of the ‘net?


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