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Wall Street Journal debate: Does the internet make us smarter?

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Posted on June 7 2010 4:00 pm

As I type this, I have eight tabs open: personal blog, two articles, NewsReal Blog, Newsreal composition page, search, Hot Air and Twitter.  For most of us, web navigation and related multi-tasking is intuitive now.  It’s common to deftly move from page to figurative page of our mind, represented in neatly arranged tabs. Our natural appetite for information, connectivity, conversation and activity have become acutely realized, now wedded to this technology.  Yet, in our Brave New Intellectual World, are we better thinkers?  How are we assimilating this information?  What do these hyper-individualized spheres of communication, this type of rapid consumption of data do to our minds and, ultimately, culture?

The Wall Street Journal recently published dueling articles answering the question, “Has the internet made us smarter?” Clay Shirky takes the affirmative position, celebrating our new technical tools and digital freedom as a conduit for intellectual expression.  Nicholas Carr assumes the opposing view, arguing that the medium itself could be eroding our cognitive skills and altering brain chemistry, creating shallow understanding.  (See Nicholas Carr’s previously published article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” here.) While both recognize that reading itself is a learned ability and agree that the act of reading has fundamentally changed since the advent of the Net, neither directly addresses the requisite definition of human intelligence itself.  If intelligence is basically utilitarian, then any method of acquisition and amount of information gathered is a boon.  If intelligence requires information, comprehension and, ultimately, communication (as I assume Carr would say) then any given medium may help or hinder.

How do we define intelligence and what role does the medium play?  We now live digital lives, irrevocably altered.  There will never be a day without this technology, barring attack or prohibition.  How has this changed our thinking, language and our “real life” communities?  We revel in our new gadgets and the ease they’ve afforded us, yet there is no free lunch.  With every new gain, something necessarily has been removed.  Our instinctive response to technology is to answer the question, “What does it do for me?”  Perhaps we should be asking, “What does it do to me?”

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