Last week, The Pew Research Center released a report asking a selection of “experts, organizations, and interested institutions” whether or not they believed Google was making people dumb, and whether or not our collective intelligence would grow or shrink as a result of recurrent Internet use. The report was a somewhat belated response to Nicholas Carr’s article, in the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
Carr claimed that his “concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages” of reading a book, and blamed the Internet’s easy access to information for making him more of a speed reader than a deep, analytical one. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski,” he says. Carr argues that, as we consume more information in a shorter amount of time, our capacity for critical thinking diminishes.
But the experts that Pew contacted were less pessimistic. Only 16-percent (and 21-percent of total respondents) agreed with Carr. With the exception of a small percentage of non-respondents, the vast majority of people agreed with the following statement: “By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has enhanced intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong; Google does not make us stupid.”
The next step, then, is to critically examine the qualitative view of Pew’s “intelligence.” To invoke Carr’s skepticism, greater access to information doesn’t necessarily result in deeper understanding. The sheer flood of data at our fingertips may diminish the level of concentration we give to books, newspapers and other analog media. For instance, we may become a generation that reads both Hamlet and our Facebook wall the same way; the difference is, one happens to barrage us with constant updates of low-quality, while the other is static, and read in a more focused manner. Perhaps then, our way of reading one will distort the other. Simply put, while we may be exposed to more, this doesn’t mean valuable absorption occurs.
Nicholas Carr is not the first to ponder how the Net changes the way readers assimilate information. In 1995, MIT Lab Founder Nicholas Negroponte coined the term “The Daily Me,” describing a vision of a daily newspaper that would be customized or filtered to each user’s interests. (At its most basic level, we see this kind of filtering on myriad news sites — like Google and AOL — that allow you to pick what topics you wish to view whenever you log in.) RSS feeds are the best representation of The Daily Me, allowing users to pick not only the source of their information, but also to filter by topic and author. While the promise of tailored news was initially an exciting idea, it also brought fears of an “echo chamber” effect, where users would only read news fitting their sociopolitical belief system. By not being exposed to different opinions and methods of coverage, ordinary people would exist in a feedback system in which they would consume material tailored to, and supporting, their beliefs.
Hyperlinking text increases the discovery of information upon which users might never have expected to stumble, a process called “serendipity” by ‘net theorists. Wikipedia is a perfect example of this kind of unfettered, stream-of-consciousness process. By reading one article, users frequently get caught in a stream of links, clicking on one after the other to discover new information.
In contrast, targeted advertising offers a cloistered, often ‘boxing’ experience, as evidenced by book suggestions on Amazon.com. If you buy Sarah Palin’s autobiography, the site will automatically suggest the autobiographies of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Conversely, if you purchase Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species,’ you’ll be recommended books by the likes of Richard Dawkins instead of treatises on intelligent design. (This differs from the crowd-sourced, Amazon user-generated suggestions, but that’s an issue to be tackled in a future post.)
In light of these two conflicting aspects of the online experience, are Pew’s experts right or wrong? The answer, we venture, isn’t clear cut. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be expanding our discussion of the Internet’s role in either enhancing or diminishing our capacity for critical thinking. Join the discussion, and leave your comments below.