Is the web making us dumber -- or smarter?

Mar 23, 2010


o optimists the web represents a quantum leap in the availability and ubiquity of information. The internet is the Great Library of Alexandria, and everyone has a free library card -- it's got almost unlimited knowledge, and access to it isn't limited either.

But what does the medium itself do to the message (to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan)? It's a debate that's been going on for a few years now, though there's little consensus on it.

Maggie Jackson in the latest Nieman Report sums up the pessimistic argument with eloquence:

"I see worrisome signs that our climate of distraction undermines our ability to think deeply. Consider that nearly a third of workers are so busy or interrupted that they often feel they do not have time to reflect on the work that they do, according to the Families and Work Institute. David M. Levy, a professor at the University of Washington, has even held a high-level MacArthur Foundation-funded conference tellingly called, 'No Time to Think.' And for all their tech-fluency, younger generations often have trouble evaluating and assessing information drawn from the Web, studies show. For example, a new national exam of information literacy, the Educational Testing Service’s “iSkills” assessment test, found that just half of college students could judge the objectivity of a Web site, and just over a third could correctly narrow an overly broad online search."

Don Tapscott, also in the latest Nieman Reports, outlines a more optimistic perspective:

"As O’Shea’s example shows, digital immersion can be good for the brain. To Google effectively, a person has to ask a good question, construct a search, and weed out stuff that’s irrelevant. The next step is to evaluate what’s been found, synthesize it, and form a view. All of this entails constructing one’s own story rather than following the line of thought drawn by someone else. This doesn’t replace conventional book reading, nor should it. But neither should Googling be dismissed as an intellectual slacker’s answer to real thinking. Some literacy scholars believe that finding information in this way can be just as intellectually challenging as reading a book."

I go back and forth. Being able to sort and judge information for yourself is a key skill, it seems logical that the web would force people to get better at it. But maybe the sheer volume and immediacy of it would actually stunt people's ability to develop this skill.

Or maybe it's no change at all. A friend of mine studied under a professor once who purposely assigned too much reading just to teach people how to make choices. He learned the importance of this skill getting his PhD at Harvard himself, and he did it long before the internet was so ubiquitous. So maybe nothing has changed, it's the same as it ever was. And being able to effectively sort through the overwhelming amount of information in the world really takes a Harvard degree!

What do you think?



For those that believe everything that they read and do very little independent thought and research the answer is that it is making them less intelegent....or maybe more miss-informed.

Anonymous (not ...

Gotta tell ya; I love researching info on the Web. It's akin to having the largest set of encyclopedias ever constructed.

This morning I was scanning on-line London newspapers in order to get their take on PM Brown's recent visit. How cool is that?

I sure wish I woulda had this tool in school.

I think it widens the divide between critical thinkers and those who haven't learned how to do it, Nick. The web is powerful but with all it's potential, it's just another tool and children are either going to learn how to use it or they're not. The future belongs to those who know how to use tools placed at their disposal. The development of technology in today's world far outpaces the ability of normal people to integrate it into their lives - and sometimes when they do, the tech is more of a distraction than an enhancement. I go back and forth on this debate too. Until it drives me to turning off the computer to go play with the kids at the park.


I like that ... wait, I don't mean I like it, but that's an interesting take. Both are true for different people. While the previous generation was so much about bringing society together, this generation seems so much about polarizing it. The thought disparity of the internet seems like just another way...


Anonymous (not ...

Mr White, your comment reminded me of the following:

' All technological change is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.'

- Neil Postman

Mechanical clocks were originally developed in the 14th Century in Europe in order to help remind Christian believers to faithfully recite their morning, afternoon and evening prayers.

How well is that original concept working in today's increasingly humanistic Western world?