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Stoopid Is As Stoopid Does

March 8, 2010

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“The problem isn’t Google; it’s what Google helps us find.  For some, Google will let them find useless content that does not challenge their minds.  But for others, Google will lead them to expect answers to questions, to explore the world, to see and think for themselves.” – Esther Dyson, longtime Internet expert and investor

Have you ever noticed the extreme brevity of the World Wide Web?  Nearly everything is delivered in quick, concise messages.  News feeds, status updates, curtailed videos, and instant messages.  It’s the language of the Internet.

This systematic approach to communication is the comparative version of fast food consumption. It’s similar to the zillions of drive-thru restaurants we gorge from everyday.  We want the meat delivered fast, even if it’s a bit dry.  Then we multitask – consuming our food while hastily driving to our next destination.  People just don’t seem to have the time or patience to enjoy the meal.

So, should this brevity concern us?  A magazine article by Nick Carr, entitled “Is Google Making Us Stoopid,” was published in July 2008.  It generated a slew of responses from the media and bloggers.  Carr presented a thought provoking argument about the long-term effects of the Internet on human cognition.

Carr made the argument that the Internet diminishes literacy skills and reduces the capacity for retention.  He based the notion on the fact that written web content is typically presented in short bursts.  Think of concise paragraphs, numerous sub-sections, brief e-mails, or 140-character Tweets.

The article contained testimonies from neuroscientists and sociologists.  They explained that the human brain is extremely malleable and conforms to the technologies that it is subjected to. The computing power of sites like Google means that our brains do considerably less processing.

Carr added that our reliance on intellectual technologies reduces our mental capacity because these technologies have become incorporated into the Internet.  He wrote, “It’s (the Internet) becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.”

So, is the Internet really making us stupid?  The question, along with others, was recently posed to 895 experts in the technology world.  The report, conducted by the research firm Pew Internet, intended to provide a collective forecast on the effects of the Internet.  The majority of responses proved to be more positive than Carr’s interpretation.

Asked whether Google will make us stupid, 76% of the experts agreed that it would not have that effect on users.  The majority concluded that access to enormous amounts of information would actually make us smarter and equipped to make better decisions.

Hal Varian, chief economist for Goggle, said, “Google will make us more informed.  The smartest person in the world could well be behind a plow in China or India.  Providing universal access to information will allow such people to realize their full potential, providing benefits to the entire world.”

Axel Bruns, Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology is skeptical of the benefits.  He said, “By 2020, we will have even more access to even more information, using even more sophisticated search and retrieval tools – but how smartly we can make use of this potential depends on whether our media literacies and capacities have caught up, too.”

The expert panel was also asked about the effects of the Internet on reading, writing, and memory retention.  Again, the response was largely positive with 65% agreeing that in ten years the Internet will have enhanced these skills.

“Moreover, it will be apparent by 2020 that a multi-literate society has developed, one that can communicate with ease through a variety of media, including art and photography, animation, video, games and simulations, as well as text and code,” said Stephen Downes of the National Research Council, Canada.

Some experts did not wholly agree with that sentiment.  “We will be less patient and less able to concentrate on long-form texts,” countered Andreas Kluth, a writer for Economist Magazine.  “This will result in a resurgence of short-form texts and story-telling, in ‘Haiku-culture’ replacing ‘book-culture.’”

Amidst all of the prognosticating, many of the conclusions in the report seem rational.  Reading, writing, and literacy skills are changing and adapting to a digital medium.  A language of brevity may not necessarily be a catalyst for debilitation of the mind.  Most of us are probably consuming the fast food in order to meet the hectic demands in our lives.

So, is the Internet really making us stupid?  T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”  Internet information is enormously abundant and extremely accessible.  Much of it is prudent, but even more is impractical.  All of it, however, is useless if we don’t know what to do with it.  The manner in which information influences our wisdom and cognition will be based on:  how well we process information and the decisions we make based on the information.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2010 1:08 PM

    Great post! I agree, the Internet is not necesarily making us all stupid, as it is providing us with access to more information, especially via Social Media, but we have developed a new language to go with it. It is worrying to think of the change in literacy skills, and to what will become of books in the future if this becomes the “new” language (this was going to be my next blog post :D)

    • March 10, 2010 2:58 AM

      Thank you for the comment! Yes, it is rather disheartening to think that we may be compromising the integrity of our language on account of ‘txt spk.’ Books are one of the sources of information that rely on peer review before publication. I think that is the key element, peer review. It provides a validation of the writer’s sources as well as the grammar. The Internet is great in the sense that we can publish freely; however, I think that peer review is vital at a certain capacity.

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