Does the Net really have the ability to make us smarter?
Lazier, sure (exhibit A: college professors admonishing students that cruising Wikipedia does not constitute bona fide research). Bolder, indeed (exhibit B: my grade-school pal’s tendency to lovingly detail her hookups in her Facebook status. Base creature that I am, I read every word).
But more intelligent? As in raising-SAT-scores smarter, attaining-PhDs smarter?
After surveying 895 people online, researchers at North Carolina’s Elon University and the Pew Internet & American Life Project have concluded that yes, the Net’ll smartify us all in the next 10 years.
Of those surveyed, 371 were dubbed “experts,” which Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University, describes as futurists, members of groups like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) or the Association of Internet Researchers, and others. The balance were regular, Net-usin’ folks, like my Aunt Tilly.
Without question, Tilly (like the rest of us) can now be more of an intellectual dilettante at cocktail parties with the Net in her bag o’ tricks. Need a snippet of information about how electricity works or how killer whales behave or why people’s eyes water? Answers to these questions are there for the taking online.
In a shallow way, I guess having ready access to this information makes us all smarter. But to be more precise, I think it just makes us more efficient at getting our questions answered.
That said, I do believe that these data nuggets make a fine jumping-off point to more nuanced debate about the pros and cons of electric versus gas home heating, or whether animals should be kept in captivity. Knowing the facts about why humans weep helps us make sense of the broader phenomenon, shaped by an array of physiological factors, that we are just as apt to shed tears hearing good news as we are hearing bad news.
Maybe if we stop asking the Web to do all our mulling for us, then gleaning those first Google crumbs can be a stepping-stone on the way to enhanced wisdom.
Nicholas Carr lamented that focused thought is being compromised by the Web in his August 2008 article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
“I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” he wrote, observing that his capacity for sticking with an article or book was diminished, that he was no longer able to meander through pages of prose before he started to get twitchy and distracted. In the piece, Carr attributed this shift in his attention span to a decade of surfing, clicking, blogging, and otherwise wandering through cyberspace.
Carr’s article resonated with me. But so does the conclusion of the Elon/Pew study, which supports the Net’s ability to enhance our intelligence.
I think the key is to treat the Net as a controlled substance. Gather some facts, then shut the machine off. Talk to a friend or other expert. Read an article offline. Cogitate.
Like any other skill, deep concentration requires exercise to stay honed. To those of us most comfy parked in front of a laptop, it requires a behavioral shift, but it’s one way to keep your brain from getting overly flabby.
Too much of any readily available and addictive thing -- Cool Ranch Doritos, say, or US magazine -- will leave you feeling slightly nauseous, wishing you could get that last hour back. Too much surfin’ and your brain does start to feel sort of squingy. But a few infobytes from a Google search, coupled with the discipline to stop surfing and start reflecting, might just pave the way to a more meaningful kind of intelligence -- one that the Web indeed helped shape.
By the way, Janna Anderson tells me she’s still adding predictions to the Imagining the Internet Website. Check it out here.
— Amy Rogers Nazarov is a longtime technology and business journalist who, in addition to covering Webby things, writes about food and entertaining at www.wordkitchen.net.