Does the Internet make us smarter?

To follow is an excerpt from the September 24, 2010 CQ Researcher report on "Impact of the Internet on Thinking" by Alan Greenblatt.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project put a variation of Nicholas Carr's question — “Does Google make us stupid?” — to hundreds of technology experts. [Footnote 14] A majority disagreed with Carr's premise, but their ideas about how intelligence had been reshaped by the Internet ranged widely.

Some felt that people were freed up from rote tasks such as memorization of facts. That could end up meaning that we have to redefine what we mean by intelligence, as machines take up a greater share of the tasks once left to the human mind. Some stated their belief that the Internet had helped create a “hive brain” that allows people to share thoughts and come to collective solutions to complex problems together.

“There's a pretty broad feeling among lots of technology users that these tools can serve their needs in new ways,” says Lee Rainie, who directs the Pew project.

“You can gather up information quickly and easily, which might have taken you enormous amounts of time in an earlier age,” he says. “At the same time, people will moan and groan about the distractions that these devices bring into their lives.”

No one disputes that the Internet has made much more information readily available to just about anyone. “It's been a boon in that it gives access to all kinds of stuff that a crummy high-school library wouldn't have even come close to having,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

But Thompson worries that the way Google filters information makes it potentially less useful, in certain respects. He jokes that good students will cite material from the third page of links that a Google search calls up, while bad students will not look past the first page.

“The problem is that so much of the stuff that would really be a boon is not used, because it's not on the first page of a Google search,” he says.

The narrowing of information — necessary given the glut that's now available — can cause problems even among serious researchers. Lehrer, the author of How We Decide, cites a study indicating that since scientific papers have been widely available online, fewer of them are being cited.

“Even though we have access to all sorts of information, we seem to be citing the same texts,” Lehrer says. “The Internet allows us to filter our world, to cherry-pick our facts. It's just human nature writ large.”

David Levy, a professor at the University of Washington's Information School, says that the rapid transmission and accumulation of knowledge made possible by technology is helpful, but he worries that information overload can have some ill effects.

Namely, he's concerned that the flood of information leaves people with no time to think. “There's another piece of the process of learning and growing and getting information further assimilated, and that's the time for contemplation,” he says. “We're just not allowing ourselves sufficiently the time to do deeper reflection.”

Paul Saffo, managing director for Discern Analytics, a Silicon Valley forecasting firm, says there's a case to be made that the Internet is helping to make individuals smarter. There have been studies showing that not just Web searches but also video games are good at stimulating and strengthening parts of the brain.

“Video games turn out to be amazing for the brain,” Lehrer says. “They're like doing pushups for the brain.”

But Saffo worries, too, that the Internet ethos of instant and ever-changing information can have its deleterious effects on society as a whole. “The collective impact of this technology causes more people to look at and concentrate on the immediate at the expense of the long-term,” he says.

This effect of everyone concentrating solely on the moment can lead to catastrophic mistakes and have an ill effect on democracy, Saffo suggests. “This is the dark side of the eternal present,” he says. “There's no capacity to step back and frame things in different ways. Anyone who dares think long-term will be taken down.”

In his Atlantic article and follow-up book The Shallows, Carr is careful to state that the Internet has been enormously beneficial in a number of ways. Critics of his book nevertheless contend that he has overstated the extent of the problems of concentration and deep thought created or exacerbated by technology.
Proportion of Recreational Computer Time Spent on Various Activities

To the extent that people skim, get distracted or fail to think deeply about the words and images flitting across their screens — well, people have always found ways to avoid thinking too deeply. Long before Twitter, there were television sitcoms, Lehrer points out. And long before people could waste time playing Minesweeper and Scrabble online, there were plenty of games made out of cardboard and plastic.

But Carr argues that the Internet is not simply a tool for distraction and time wasting. He says it affects how the brain processes information.

In his book, Carr cites studies showing that people reading short stories with hyperlinks embedded in them retain a good deal less of the content than people who read them on the printed page, because the need to make decisions about whether to click on the links keeps them from concentrating on the text at hand. [Footnote 15]

“Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning,” Carr writes in The Shallows.

“It's possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it's possible to think shallowly while reading a book,” Carr continues, “but that's not the type of thinking that technology encourages and rewards.” [Footnote 16]

Getting used to technological distraction can cause problems in social settings, suggests Small, the UCLA psychiatrist.

“We have a generation of digital natives with very strong techno-skills and very strong neuro pathways for multitasking and experiencing partial continuous attention and other wonderful adaptive skills,” Small says. “But they're not developing the face-to-face human contact skills.”

There isn't strong data about this, Small says, but the idea that young people, especially, have more difficulty interacting with people in person when they are texting other people with near-constancy is evident all around us, he suggests.

“The Internet's not making us stupid or smarter — it's changing the way we're processing information,” Small says.

“You cannot stop the technology train,” he adds. “It's way out of the station, coming down the tracks. You have to adapt.”

The Issues:
*Is the Web changing the way we think?
*Does the Web shorten attention spans?
*Are people addicted to the Internet?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Impact of the Internet on Thinking" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF

[14] Janna Quitney Anderson and Lee Rainie, “Does Google Make Us Stupid?” Pew Internet & American Life Project, Feb. 19, 2010.
[15] Carr, op. cit., p. 127.
[16] Ibid., p. 115.