Sunday, October 10, 2010

I'm On the Internet. And I Don't Feel Stoopid.

Every once and a while, someone trots out the notion that the Internet is making us stupid.

This seems to be a favorite subject of The Atlantic magazine. Back in 2008 they posed the question, and just a few weeks ago rephrased it by asking is Google making us stupid. Here's what they have to say most recently. Writes Nicholas Carr:
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
[w]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Here we see the typical argument: The Internet stole my brain. It changed the way I think. I can't concentrate. I don't have the depth I used to. I can't read a novel without suddenly drifting off to want to read something else. Like this:

I don't know if I buy that. Frankly, I think in many ways the Internet it making me smarter. And at a more rapid pace. I think that's good. If there's a word or a concept I don't understand, I have the Internet right there, ready and willing (for the most part) to help me learn. Sure, I have to consider who is writing or displaying what I'm reading or viewing, but don't I have to do the same thing with the written, physical word as well?

Carr is correct in thinking that maybe we're not getting the depth we need -- but we can graze just as shallowly from written, physical literature as we can from the Internet, can we not? What maybe Carr is seeing change is the way he approaches knowledge, reading and such, rather than the medium making his approach to such more shallow and more scattered.

I'm more along the lines of Nick Bilton, who writes for his New York Times blog in favor of computer technology enhancing our abilities to learn, as backed up by scientific study:
Research shows that each medium offers its own positive attributes: Neuroscience has shown that playing video games stimulates areas of our brains that control working memory, hand and eye coordination and attention and can stimulate and vastly improve our cognitive skills. Reading on the other hand promotes deep thought and exercises areas of the brain responsible for reflection, reasoning and critical analysis. And auditory storytelling stimulates areas of the brain involved with creativity, contextual thinking and executive function.

It could be argued that the Web, which is the ultimate library of words, video, images, interactivity, sharing and conversation, is the quintessential place to learn.
Why bring all this up if I'm not worried about the Internet make me stupid? Well, this.

A display of ancient clay and stone tablets, some of them dating back more than 5,000 years, at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago show that there was some consernation among the elites of the time that the mere act of writing things down was going to make people, well, stupid. Here's an excerpt from a Sci-Tech Today article
The Greek philosopher Plato revealed the fears some Egyptians expressed when he wrote of the Egyptian myth that the god Thoth invented writing and then boasted to the chief god, Amun, that it was an "elixir of memory and wisdom."

In reply, Amun predicted trouble for readers and writers.

He said it would cause forgetfulness in writers because they would not use their memory. Moreover, he predicted, readers would give only the appearance of knowing things while remaining "ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise but only appear wise."
So the worry about newfangled technology dumbing us down isn't exactly new, is it? That's why I don't worry. Writing things down certainly didn't make us dumber -- for the most part, it's made a lot of educational opportunities available to a lot more people. It helped spread literacy, albeit slowly in many parts. What the Internet is doing for learning and literacy is far beyond that scope and speed.

And you know what's cool about the Internet? It gave me space and inspiration and lots of opportunities for research to write a novel this year. By all means it's not done, and it's not the best novel in the world, but I'm certain that without self-publishing and research opportunity offered by the Internet, it might not have been written this year. Now if I can only decode it. . .

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