Information Superhighway Just Vapid Transit?

Suggestions that the Internet is making mankind dumb (or smarter) founder on logical pitfalls and historical predecessors.
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Suggestions that the Internet is making mankind dumb (or smarter) founder on logical pitfalls and historical predecessors.

Consider an industrial printing press. It is expensive and technologically archaic. It groans and grinds. It clanks and spits grease. Roald Dahl could have built a short story around one: “The Finger Snatcher.”

Now take the Internet. It is free and efficient. Anyone with a rudimentary sense of technology can use it to view or create content, so long as they have access to a computer and a little free time.

At some point in the last decade, the latter of these two technologies eclipsed the former as the world’s most important vehicle of mass communication. By doing so it sparked a growing debate: Is the Internet making us stupid?

In his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, journalist Nicholas Carr argues that the Web is “remapping our neural circuitry,” downsizing the regions dedicated to deep thought and extended contemplation. Carr’s book has garnered considerable attention, and it’s not hard to see why. For many of us, the Web frequently does function as a conveyor belt of inconsequential and titillating information.

But does that mean that the Internet actually making us “dumber,” as Carr argues, and many seem to think?

Carr and other critics of the Internet point out that when we’re online we’re apt to skip from hyperlink to hyperlink, avoiding long or difficult articles. Because the Web provides us with so many opportunities for distraction, they say, and because it’s difficult to avoid passing up those opportunities, it follows that it’s having a deeper effect on our thinking patterns — that being distracted on the Web is making us more easily distractible in general.

This is a big logical leap — how well does it hold up to scrutiny?

One of the most important discoveries of modern cognitive psychology is something called the “confirmation bias” — the natural tendency we have to seek confirming evidence of our beliefs and ignore disconfirming evidence.

Examples of confirmation bias can be found in nearly everything we do. For instance, in the last decade or so, a Chinese herb, ginkgo biloba, has become popular as a supposed miracle drug that improves memory. A study by researchers at Ohio State, however, found that it’s about as effective a memory enhancer as a Snickers bar, which is to say that it has no specific effect on memory whatsoever.

Yet people who take ginkgo biloba swear by it. Why?

One answer is confirmation bias. If you believe something, you interpret evidence in ways that support your belief. Thus, when you remember to buy laundry detergent, you think, “Thank goodness for ginkgo." But when you forget to do the laundry, you don't count it as a strike against ginkgo.

Confirmation bias is one of the more ubiquitous and confounding problems in human judgment and decision-making, and it means that once we form the hypothesis that the Internet is making us dumb, we’re bound to start to see evidence that it’s doing just that.

So if how we feel about the Internet is not necessarily a sound basis for judging its effect on our intelligence, what does the empirical evidence indicate? In his argument, Nicholas Carr places special emphasis on surveys suggesting that the Internet diminishes our interest in reading books.

Why that might be so is no puzzle. Take a moment to perform a mental experiment. You’re on vacation on a quiet beach. On your lap is either a Kindle loaded with interesting new books or an iPad loaded with same, but also e-mail, Facebook, YouTube, and so on. Now ask yourself: With which device are you more likely to will yourself through that boring stretch a quarter way into your new novel — the Kindle or the iPad? The Kindle limits us to reading static text; the iPad gives us the freedom to avoid it, and for many of us, that choice is too tempting to pass up.

But simply because the Internet may discourage book reading doesn’t necessarily mean that that we are made “dumber” by using it. It is worth recollecting that the same worries now circulating about the Internet were prevalent in the 1950s, when televisions became cheap enough for personal use. TV, it was claimed, would lead children to read less and “veg out” more, thereby turning their brains to mush. Indeed, our parents subscribed to this notion, or something like it: We grew up without TV, and we read more books than most of our friends.

Although it turned to be true that kids with TVs read less than kids without TVs, the fear that television was going to turn children’s brains to mush was entirely unfounded. There is a popular conception that IQ measures are flawed and should not be trusted, but in fact IQ scores are predictive of educational outcomes, earning power, and other markers of intelligence, and as it happens, IQ scores have been rising steadily across the globe ever since IQ testing began in earnest, a century ago.

This finding, which is known as the Flynn Effect, suggests that with or without TVs, kids are getting smarter

Now, the Flynn Effect hardly means that TV made, or makes, children smarter. But it indicates that television’s rapid spread in the latter half of the 20th century did not cause widespread illiteracy or stupidity, as many early critics claimed it would.

So if our feeling that the Web is making us dumb is less trustworthy than we might imagine — because of confirmation bias — and TV, the relevant historical parallel, has not made us stupid, than what does the neurological evidence suggest?

Is Nicholas Carr correct to argue that the Internet is remapping our neural circuitry in a harmful way? Critics hoping to poke holes in Carr’s argument have cited a 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, who found that compared to reading a book, performing Google searches increased brain activity in the area that underlies selective attention and deliberate analysis.

It’s not a bad study to cite, since Carr specifically claims that the Web is bad for our neural circuitry. But it’s also misleading, because the term “intelligence” is so broad and complex that neurological research hasn’t begun to explain it in its totality — which means that the study shouldn’t be used to support the claim that the Internet is making us “smarter,” either.

The reality is, everything we remember affects our neural circuitry — rewiring is how our brains store information — and neural circuitry is the wrong level of analysis for thinking about broad effects on intelligence.

So what, finally, of the simple logical argument that skipping from hyperlink to hyperlink online is less mentally nourishing than reading a challenging book or a long magazine article? Here, critics of the Web have a strong case. Life is a daily struggle to attain clarity of thought, and devoting your undivided attention to something for an extended period of time — like a book — is a good way to achieve it. Better, probably, than surfing the Web.

But clarity of thought and IQ — which is the measure of intelligence independent of knowledge — are not the same thing. The great wealth of empirical data gathered by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists in recent decades suggests that “intelligence” is a broad term for a very complex phenomenon, which makes it tenuous at best to draw conclusions about the effect of the Internet on something as “global” — as the Nobel-prize winning cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman has put it  — as intelligence.

Put another way, even though reading books can marshal your concentration, and perusing the Internet frequently disperse it, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Web is making us “dumber.” It can be mentally distracting, but that doesn’t mean it’s mentally deforming.

It’s useful to remember, when considering the argument that the Web is contributing to our mental downfall, that ruing the invention of new forms of mass communication is a historical tradition of long standing. Television, typewriters, telegrams, telephones, writing in languages other than Latin, writing at all—at one point or another all of these were declared sure signposts of the fall of Western civilization.

None of them did, and if history is any guide, the Internet won’t either.