3/15: Hopping on the Bandwagon? The Internet’s Impact on Intelligence

With the news from The Marist Poll that an overwhelming 68% of U.S. residents believe the Internet is making us smarter, I’m beginning to think I should just hop on the bandwagon and see where it takes me.  Still, I can’t help asking why people are so optimistic.

goldman-caricature-430The general argument linking smarts to the Web seems to go like this: Because of this vast online memory store, parts of our mind that would have been tied up in the dark days preceding the Web are freed to accomplish new tasks.  With the Web harboring all the data we need, we know finding an answer is as simple as typing a query into a search engine, and this certainty alters our approach to any task that requires information we lack.  Now, we don’t have to spend time and effort acquiring such knowledge; the Internet holds it for us, and we are more productive under this lightened load.

Some people characterize the Internet as an extension of our brains.  In his Atlantic article “Get Smarter,” Jamais Cascio discusses the rise of computers and devices dubbed “exocortical technology,” which allow us to perform tasks we never dreamed of.  He writes: “As the digital systems we rely upon become faster, more sophisticated, and (with the usual hiccups) more capable, we’re becoming more sophisticated and capable too.”  The article is fascinating, and I encourage you to read it – among other things, it suggests that in addition to computers, drugs will be developed that help us perform cognitive tasks better.

But I can’t stop myself from protesting that the Web, one of these “sophisticated” systems, has spawned a certain amount of unpleasantness: paparazzi-fueled “news,” silly viral videos, a huge number of scams … the list goes on.  While the Web can be seen as a tool to help us achieve things, it also appears to be able to distract us, sell us things we don’t need, and lead us down fruitless paths as we seek information.  One could argue that the Web is still in its infancy, and guides will emerge to point us in the right directions.  But one could also argue that powerful entities who see the medium as a piggy bank waiting to be smashed don’t want that to happen.

Nicholas Carr, whose article “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” also in the Atlantic, created quite a buzz among tech pundits, points out that for all of the Internet’s innovative power, it could be altering something fundamental about the way we read.  Carr writes: “In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book … we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.”  Such deep reading, he says, isn’t encouraged by the Web’s architecture, which is designed to accommodate shallow, fast processing: the more we click, the more some company stands to sell us something.

I doubt Carr was surprised when a survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project revealed 81% of experts believe “Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid.” He knows as much as anyone that the bandwagon is alluring and swift, with some authority figures at the wheel.  So while the Web skeptics and evangelists will go back and forth (the evangelists enjoying the majority position), one thing is abundantly clear: most people trust the Web to propel them into the future.  If that’s the case, then regulation, analysis, and organization are in order.  Perhaps we need the skeptics to keep the bandwagon from tipping over.