Does Google make us stupid?

Sunday, February 28th, 2010 by Roberto Saracco

This header appeared last summer in the cover story of the Atlantic Montly, , written by Nicholas Carr and went on explaining that the widespread use of Internet by 2020 for any kind of activity will lead to a dimiished intellectual for the majority of people. It will be so easy to find any response to any question just by voicing it (no more typing in 2020) that our brain will not need to engage in any sophisticated thinking. 2+2 will still make 4 but because Internet tells us so!

This opinion was challenged by the fourth survey on Internet organised by Pew Internet & American Life Project and the results are quite different. Mind you, we are still in the realm of opinions but it is interesting to look at the different viewpoints.

Carr’s opinion was summarised in the following sentence:

“The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas…. If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with ‘content,’ we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.”

This opinion was challenged by Jamais Cascio, an affiliate of the Institute of the Future who wrote in the following issue of the Atlantic Montly:

“Most people don’t realize that this process is already under way,” he wrote. “In fact, it’s happening all around us, across the full spectrum of how we understand intelligence. It’s visible in the hive mind of the Internet, in the powerful tools for simulation and visualization that are jump-starting new scientific disciplines, and in the development of drugs that some people (myself included) have discovered let them study harder, focus better, and stay awake longer with full clarity.” He argued that while the proliferation of technology and media can challenge humans’ capacity to concentrate there were signs that we are developing “fluid intelligence-the ability to find meaning in confusion and solve new problems, independent of acquired knowledge.”

Based on these two statements Pew asked over 500 people working on Internet and content from differnt perspectives what they felt like and this is the outcome: 81% felt the Internet is improving humanity IQ whist 16% resonated with Carr (and 4% did not take any stand).

I have to say I am leaning towards the 81%. Since the beginning of the recorded history we have seen people concerned that innovation would decrease the skills that were dominant at that time (remember the position taken by some ancient philosophers that the invention of writing would decrease the ability of remembering things since it would be so much more convenient to write things down and read them at a later time rather than striving to remember them?).

This fear of innovation spoiling our present culture, habits and skill is still present but I do believe that the future will prove otherwise. We have always been able to exploit the new and to add it on to the acquired skill of the past. Clearly the future is building on the past but it is also tranforming out physical and cultural ecosystem. As such we are unlikely to survive in a jungle as our ancestors did, we would have very little chance of feeding ourselves without the technological progress in agriculture,…and so on.

But I guess most of us are not looking forward to live in a jungle anymore…

Learning is going to improve with the appropriate use of internet and everyone of us will have the opportunity of, like Newton once said, seeing further since we will be standing on the shoulders of giants. The good thing is that more and more people will have the real possibility of doing that.

Take a look at the full Pew report. It makes for a good reading.