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The Internet Is Making Us Either Stupid or Smarter; Can’t Be Both

Is Internet Changing the Brain? - Oliver Stollmann
In scientific, sociological, economic and education circles debate continues about whether the world wide web damages people’s brains, or aids new thinking.

Controversy about the harmful effects on brains of excessive mobile/cell phone use, particularly by young people, has become polarised, without convincing evidence either way. A consensus may have formed about the harmful effects on impressionable minds of too much TV/video/game violence, again, as affecting youngsters especially, or the dangers of too much social isolation while on-line.

The jury is still out on the long-term harm of living near pylons, transmitters, masts or any of the paraphernalia of modern living in an information-driven, technological-biased world. Some people are beginning to think that the Internet may not be the solution to the world’s problems; in fact, it may be starting a whole new set of difficulties.

A Compelling Argument

Electronic gadgetry in general and the web in particular may be changing the make-up of people’s brains, with potentially disastrous consequences, according to Nicholas Carr, writing in the UK’s Daily Telegraph and talking to the BBC. His book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010), claimed that ‘the web was depriving our mental faculties of the regular workouts they need’.

Carr posed the question originally in 2008: Is Google making us stupid? Asking the question, raising the very possibility that people, ‘while enjoying the net’s bounties, are sacrificing ability to read and think deeply. Since then, Google Instant has been launched: it searches before a user has finished typing; it thinks for him/her.

He considered the Internet’s ‘intellectual and cultural consequences’, explaining how human thought across centuries has been shaped by ‘tools of the mind’ (alphabet, maps, printing press, clocks. computers). He argued, citing historical and scientific evidence, that brains change in response to people’s experiences. The brain is a kind of information-process entity, shaped by what it processes.

The Internet ‘encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources. Its ethic is the ethic of the industrialist, an ethic of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption, and now the Net is remaking us in its own image. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection’.

Compelling Counter-Argument

An opposing view was put forward by Jonah Lehrer, (2010) contributing editor of Wired Magazine. In giving background to Carr’s study, he quoted Socrates lamenting the invention of books which ‘create forgetfulness’ in the soul; confirmed by those who felt the printing press didn’t help; and the speed of transmission by the telegraph triggering mental illness.

Lehrer conceded that everything changes the brain, but technologies are good for the mind. He reckoned the cognitive effects of video games improve performance, visual perception, memory and sustained attention. A 2009 study by University of California neuro-scientists found performing Google searches improved selective attention and deliberate analysis. In other words, Google is making people smarter. He concluded that ‘every technology comes with trade-offs’.

There is a viewpoint that hostility to technology and blaming it for everything is down to old people, who ‘never had such new-fangled ideas in their days’. This view is articulated by TechDirt, for example, illustrating the point with the fact that people buy phones with cameras, not in spite of poorer quality than more traditional cameras, though that is improving, but because they take and send photos to others in seconds, in the now, today manner.

Information Overload

Jim Pinto, writing on InTech, the magazine for automation technologies, applications and strategies, said in 2007: ‘technology is making us stupid’, and remarked how people use it as a crutch, not a tool, to avoid thinking. People are dependent on smart phones that calculate, find directions and auto-dial; notebooks, computers and text-alerts for simple calculations, basic memories of anniversaries and to-do-lists. ‘They are losing their brain power’.

He then went on to claim, nonetheless, that increased use of online banking, travel arrangements and shopping forced people to stretch memories beyond normal. People have to remember ‘passwords, pin numbers, license plates, security ID numbers and bank ATM numbers just to get through daily life. Six out of 10 people admit to “information overload.”

Most people confess to using the same password for all on-line activity, which is a potential security risk. The fact is that, like physical exercise for the body, the brain needs stimulating challenges. Puzzles and games are increasingly popular, particularly among the elderly, to help train brains and keep them in shape.

Andres Guadamuz, from Edinburgh, wrote on Technolama, in January 2009, that whenever some new technological invention comes along, somebody somewhere will claim it is harmful/detrimental to the mind/corrupting the young/dangerous to something. However, he drew the line at text-speak, which he said was detrimental to communication.

Web blogs, serious articles, reports from universities, research bodies and educational/media/sociological institutions litter the internet. Some go further: ‘does education make us stupid?’ Or, ‘does marijuana make us stupid?’ Or, ‘does writing/reading endless blogs dull the thinking?’ Or, ‘do lots of unanswerable questions overload our brains?’ Is there actually a limit on human capacity to compute?

First published on Suite 101, 17 September 2010.

Photo: Is Internet Changing the Brain? – Oliver Stollmann

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