It's by no means a new debate, but it remains an important one, and today the Wall Street Journal tackles the issue with a pair of essays on what exactly the internet's doing to our noggins. So, which is it?
Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, holds down the pro-internet side with "Does the Internet Make You Smarter?" He compares the advent of the internet to that of movable type, which initially made for a flood of amateur literature but ultimately had "the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the intellectual range and output of society."
He envisions the internet as a huge scale version of scientific peer review, in which resources like Wikipedia give individuals a productive outlet for their free time. Of course, Shirky admits, watching Scarlet take a tumble on YouTube isn't exactly a picture of high-tech enlightenment, but the internet is a new resource and now comes the part where we figure out how we can use it to make the world a better place.
Ultimately, Shirky thinks the web "will fuel the intellectual achievements of 21st-century society," having diverted young people away from the TV and onto a medium where reading and writing are essential. Eventually, the "throwaway" material of the internet will get thrown away and the collaborative and imaginative potential of the web will be realized.
Nicholas Carr*, perennial "the Internet is making us stupider" essay writer, offers the counterpoint with "Does the Internet Make Us Dumber?" He contends that the surplus of information on the internet is just that, a surplus, and sees this abundance turning us into a class of "scattered and superficial thinkers."
But Carr's notion of the internet as a detrimental influence isn't just informed by his own experience; he cites a growing body of scientific work to prove his point. A study conducted at Cornell University reveals that while some facilities like spatial intelligence are boosted by internet use, "new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes," such as "abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination" are emerging, according to one researcher.
What it boils down to for Carr is that reading books builds a sort of mental discipline that is extremely valuable for our naturally inattentive minds. The internet thrives on and reinforces those tendencies towards inattention, he explains, and he's worried that the next generation might not have the patience to pull themselves out of the web's swamp of distractions, or worse yet, might not even see the point in doing so.
Carr's right. I skimmed both articles. I am finding, though, that the iPad (and it's forced unitasking) offers a nice calm place to take in sights and sounds of the internet, one at a time, without the Growl growling at me every five seconds. I wouldn't quite say it's my digital Walden, but it's the closest thing to it I've come across lately.
For those interested in reading further, this month's issue of Wired has more in-depth pieces from both Shirky and Carr on where they see the internet taking us. You can read 'em all distracted-like on Wired's site or go buy the magazine and start disciplining that mushy brain of yours. [WSJ 1, WSJ 2]
*Read an excellent excerpt of Nick Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brain