Friday, June 01, 2012

Is the Internet making us stupid?

Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with h...
Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with his statement that the traditional, book-oriented intellectuals had become irrelevant for the formulation of cultural rules in the electronic age. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is an article I wrote for the Times-Standard "Tech Beat" column:

Is the Internet making us stupid? Variations on this argument have been floating around since Nicolas Carr first wrote “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the Atlantic Monthly back in 2008. His idea is that the more we rely on computers to do our “thinking” for us, the weaker our brains become.

These arguments rely on a shallow definition of thinking. If I believe that the only way to express intelligence is through writing 20-page papers or consuming information in the same way that my grandparents did, then I am not that smart. Carr and others believe that if someone grows impatient with books, that person is experiencing some kind of cognitive deficit.

One problem with this argument comes from the fact that we really know little about cognition in the first place. Cognitive science is still in its relative infancy. This field is rapidly changing as technology advances, so making some kind of declaration on how we think and learn based on this new science is a bit premature.

And what if technology does change the way that we think? Is this necessarily a bad thing? Maybe that is how we evolve. We develop technologies to deal with problems in our environment, and as Marshall McLuhan says, “we shape tools and then our tools shape us.” He says that technology is just an extension of our natural faculties and abilities. We have the intelligence to invent fire and bicycles. Does this make us slower and weaker? Or did we invent stuff to make up for our weaknesses?

The Hansen Writing Ball, the first typewriter ...
The Hansen Writing Ball, the first typewriter sold commercially, invented by Rasmus Malling-Hansen around 1865, first manufactured in 1870. This was a model from 1878. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Carr recounts the story of the philosopher Nietzsche's introduction to the typewriter, and he says that “under the machines' sway” Nietzsche's writing became more terse and “telegraphic.” I think this is a good thing. It is refreshing when a philosopher can get to the point. My uncle Ed, also a writer, once said to me that “the word processor is to words what the chainsaw is to wood.” I knew exactly what he meant because I wrote a book in 1990-91 using a typewriter. It was the last major project I did using a typewriter. The typewriter had me on the floor literally cutting and pasting pages and paragraphs together. I may have enjoyed the process at the time, but I would never go back.

Carr discusses McLuhan in his article: “Media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.” I agree with this. At various times in human history, our media, from the cave paintings of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc to the Internet, has gone from being an oral and visual culture to a written culture and now back into a visual medium of connections. We are connected to the information, connected to one another, and connected to the means of producing information.

We have to let go of the idea that there is some kind of privileged media. Socrates distrusted writing because it removes people from how he thought we really learn, by having conversations. Carr talks about “deep reading” and that somehow, with all of this access to information, our reading will become shallow and sporadic. He seems to forget the mountains of trash that have made it into print (novelizations of television shows, for instance). Someone can read books their entire life and not make it out of the shallows.

Thomas Claburn wrote an article in the Oct. 15 edition of Information Week called “Is Google Making Us Smarter?” where he cites a study showing that there may be some benefits to computer use, especially with older adults. The study involved 24 volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76, half of whom had prior Internet search experience. According to the article, “Participants' brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while they conducted Internet searches and read books. The study participants showed similar brain activity when reading, but when searching online, those with prior Internet experience also showed activity in the frontal, the temporal, and the cingulate areas of the brain, areas associated with complex reasoning.”

We are in a new era. But despite the fear we may have of new media, according to publisher Timothy McSweeny, “... there isn't as much bad news as popularly assumed. ... Book sales are up, way up, from twenty years ago. Young adult readership is far wider and deeper than ever before. Library membership and circulation is at all-time high.”

The latest technologies include new definitions of what a book might be. They might not be in traditional print. They might come on Kindles, Nooks, iPhones and iPads, and the Internet itself. But people are reading. Between Harry Potter and all of the vampire novels, the future of literacy is assured.

Geoff Cain is a member of the Redwood Technology Consortium and director of distance education at College of the Redwoods. Contact him at
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