“Since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press and with it movable type, those that have gone before us, afraid and suspicious of the potential of new forms of readily available media, have warned that the youth and future generations are at risk of becoming, for want of better word, stupid. And with the explosion of the realm, and possibilities of digital media, the attitudes of many today are no exception. Yes, like the impact of the printed Bible, which saw the control of the masses by the Church, formerly the intellectual stronghold of Europe, falling as a result of the new-found accessibility to the written, or printed word, now too the public have the possibility of becoming ever-more empowered by the limitless information available to us, and therefore knowledge, at our fingertips.
While there is sufficient evidence to justify people’s suspicions of the internet, and its potential for our intellectual and moral demise, these feelings and concerns again are not new. Like today, where the internet is awash with intellectual “junk-food”, such as “cat videos” and general mind-numbing silliness on YouTube, many of the early printed works, which followed the first printed Bible, were viewed in much the same. In his article, “Does the Internet Make You Smarter”, suggests that during this period there was a ” flood of contemporary literature, most of it mediocre”, as well as “vulgar versions of the Bible and distracting secular writings”.
It is not just the nature of a great deal of the content found online which proves to be intellectually distracting. One of the main reasons it is felt that the internet is to cause our imminent intellectual demise, is its ability to distract us, to break our concentration. Nicholas Carr asked this question in his article “Is the Internet Making You Dumber?”. He suggests that while the internet now allows us access to near unlimited information, it is affecting the manner in which we process and retain this information in a significant way. In contrast to reading books, or at least a long sequence of interrupted pages ,which he claims, “helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline”, the internet helps to undo this learned brain function of concentrated reading, with its multitude of distractions. As the brain is naturally wired to being “aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible”, reading, and concentration, is in fact unnatural and learned behavior. While it has been suggested that we are now reading more than ever before, it is the manner in which we are now reading which is significantly different. We now read online articles, or shorter, more condensed snippets of information, peppered with hyperlinks, leading us from page, to page resulting, often resulting to a string of half-read pieces, and in turn fragmented information. These hyperlinks are not the full extent of these distractions, we are now inundated with its pop-up ads, email and Facebook notifications, not to mention the allure of the vast realms of intrigue available if opening a new tab, even for just a moment. Nicholas Carr claims that this constantly breaking our concentration span is forever altering our experiences, as our brains are increasingly “unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections which give depth to our thinking”, which in turn affects among other things, our memories. This, I feel, is the greatest shame.
In his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Nicholas Carr alerts us to the fact that he, like many of his peers, is finding his ability to read and concentrate while reading increasingly more difficult. Like Carr, I too, at the “tender age” of 31, am finding lengthly readings and articles increasingly difficult to read. My mind keeps drifting. I think about a multitude of things and get increasingly distracted by potential new emails, treasures on ebay and the like. Like Carr, I too was concerned that my memory was slipping away from me, but was relieved to discover that my decreased ability for concentration can be blamed on my time spent on the internet. I often wondered how I managed the vast amount of reading as university, but then I hadn’t forms any relationship with the internet to speak of at that stage. At that time, I had a much better ability to retain information, but now, like many of those around me, a part of me, I am ashamed to say, feels that I have Google for that. How many times does it happen that you might have a querie, want the answer for something important, or obscure, and now have the answer to almost any question, the solution to almost any problem, at the typing of a phrase in a search bar. Would I have been more likely to have remembered the answer in future, if I was to have gone to the trouble to have searched in a book, taken time to actively have been involved in looking in books to the to find such answers? Quite possibly. And all this is of course accelerated due to our increased accessibility to the internet via our mobile phones and smartphones.
But back to Clay Shirkey, who feels that the possibilities for social and intellectual improvement on a global scale are within reach, due to our new-found relationship with the internet. Like the evolution of new literate forms, among them academic, or scientific journals, which emerged as a result of the printing press, and were to increase the “intellectual range and output of society”, the internet itself has such possibilities. During this period science was felt to be a collaborative effort, with discoveries and developments being built upon the work of others, and with it the notion of peer review, due to the fairly accessible means of the printed text. Never before have we been able to forge and maintain connections with others, to transfer information, as we are able to now. Shirkey also suggests that, the amount of time that the internet’s capabilities have saved us on a global level, should allow us the luxury of time to spend to be creative in an online sense. It is this which Shirkey describes as “cognitative surplus”, which, to society’s great shame, is spent on one largely passive activity, namely watching television. We are passively consuming rather than actively creating. He suggests that we look at the idea of Wikipedia, which illustrates the possibilities of what makes collaborative creation so exciting.
But while we have the potential to use our cognitive surplus to great value, the reality is that many people globally are actively creating at a ferocious pace, but with little means in place to moderate the quality of these “creations” our standards are increasingly at risk. In the realm of the Web 2.0, where user-generated content is key, and the role of the photographer, the journalist, filmmaker, food critic the list goes on and on, is available to everybody with internet access, people are generally empowered by the fact that they too can express themselves creatively, and have access to an audience, which before had been only the luxury of “the professional”. But is this mass creation of largely average at best, better than passively consuming? Shirkey says “yes”. From my own perspective, I have to agree. I do enjoy the idea of having a blog, where I can write and share my thoughts and things of interest. Like those who create the endless sea of videos of dancing babies, or piano playing cats, I too have a platform to express myself, which I feel is a positive. And there still is a hefty amount of high-brow literature and the like available to those to whom that is of interest. Does that mean that the standards of the generations to follow will be lowered? Possibly, but might that not be the responsibility of educators and parents to monitor and compensate for, as need be.
So, does the internet make us smarter, or more stupid? Surely it could be seen to do both? Is it not perhaps a shift from one type of brain function to another? With technology developing at an increasingly rapid pace, and as a result the way in which we live our lives and digest content, from popular music to Twitterature, speeding up as well, perhaps our need for deep thought and the retention of information is something that in the future will be less important? As the Sergy Brin and Larry Page have been known to have said that their goal for Google is to create the ultimate search engine, which is “something that is as smart as people – or smarter”. Perhaps Google will become our “external memory, which will allow us time for other activities? Personally, I can see how the internet and digital media has affected my attention span, and do feel that it is a problem which needs to be addressed. At the same time I feel that my near instant ability to clear confusion or to find solution to a problem, with a quick Google search has become indispensable to me. I have always considered myself a digital pessimist, having a hankering for the old, more traditional forms of media, but especially over the last few months doing this course, my increased ability to make use of the endless creative possibilities, as well as the access to information, of this new media has in many ways been inspiring to me. Perhaps it is our personal responsibility to be aware of the negative implications and to keep an eye on future generations and their relationships with technology, to instruct them and remind them of former cultural greats so that standards are maintained, while still be open to the new and exciting content now being created online? Are we becoming more stupid, or are we just now more easily and publicly revealing our inherent stupidity, which is why, almost all of us love to watch cat videos.