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If poking in the real world was like poking on Facebook…

If poking in the real world was like poking on Facebook…

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This is the image from Clay Shirky’s latest article in the Wall Street Journal - “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?”
This article is one half of the debate going on between Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr (who I previously mentioned, the author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid”) in 2010.
Shirky takes a stance that I have previously alluded to, in that he compares the internet to the printing press and television - however, he is a little more enertaining in his judgement of internet-based content. He compares YouTube to erotic novels of the 16th century; YouTube now constantly playing “The World’s Funniest Home Videos”, and erotic novels existing a century before scientific journals - thus, the ‘dumb’ part of the internet.
Either way, it’s a rather insightful look into the various facets of content creation on the web, and puts forth a strong argument that says, even though there is a lot of redundant information on the web, this is nothing new, and the intellectual products created by the world’s cognitive surplus far outweigh this.

This is the image from Clay Shirky’s latest article in the Wall Street Journal - “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?

This article is one half of the debate going on between Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr (who I previously mentioned, the author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid”) in 2010.

Shirky takes a stance that I have previously alluded to, in that he compares the internet to the printing press and television - however, he is a little more enertaining in his judgement of internet-based content. He compares YouTube to erotic novels of the 16th century; YouTube now constantly playing “The World’s Funniest Home Videos”, and erotic novels existing a century before scientific journals - thus, the ‘dumb’ part of the internet.

Either way, it’s a rather insightful look into the various facets of content creation on the web, and puts forth a strong argument that says, even though there is a lot of redundant information on the web, this is nothing new, and the intellectual products created by the world’s cognitive surplus far outweigh this.

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"The internet is now so pervasive in our society, it would be foolish to think it weren’t having some kind of effect on our brains."

Now this is probably more along the lines of where I am in this debate at the moment. There seems to be a lot of disagreement over whether or not the internet is having a detrimental effect on our cognitive abilities, but Rob Mitchum takes the middle ground - believing that technology making us ‘stupid’ is nothing new, it’s happened with the printing press, the radio and the television after all.

It’s pretty clear that we’re being affected by the web, that much is obvious. Charting the exact impact it is having on individuals, however, would be impossible; though that impact would certainly be magnified due to the internet’s ‘pervasive’ nature.

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The Google Generation

This here is a study sponsored by the British Library and Joint Information Systems Committee, that examines and analyses the characteristics of what they call “The Google Generation” (1993 -    )

The Google Generation? I thought it was the iPod Generation… oh well. (Can’t even find links on this anymore)

The conclusion that they seem to reach is that Libraries, and the Librarian, are becoming obsolete - because of the internet and the Google Generation’s tendency towards internet-based research and their endeavour to find “quick-wins”, going online to “avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

So is it the Google Generation who are dumbing us down then? Or are these the sort of tools that we need to organise and make sense of the vast quantities of information on the web?

The study is a bit tiresome to read, but I think it provides some interesting insights into younger generations’ online experiences, and what impact (positive and negative) this is having on our cognitive skills.

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Crowdsourcing - dumbing down research?

So this is a phenomenon that I’ve heard of vaguely, but don’t really know all that much about. “Crowdsourcing" is a concept that’s been around for some time, where companies, governments and organisations all ask for contributions from each other to facilitate the various projects they are working on. What this article addresses, albeit briefly, is how crowdsourcing works on the internet.

I’m sure you can figure that out yourself - you probably do it on a daily basis - commenting on articles, submitting work to websites, posting videos on YouTube, all on a particular topic you find interesting enough to warrant your contribution to the discussion.

Unfortunately, this article doesn’t seem to address the question it asks in its title - “Is crowdsourcing dumbing down research?”. It seems to hover around it, and invite the reader to form the idea that (without explicitly saying so) because so many people are contributing to one project, then the majority of those contributions must be ‘deadweight’.

This is a problematic statement. With all public input there will be gold, and there will be lead - but that’s why we have adjudicators, judges and censors. Wikipedia is the leading example of crowdsourcing, and while it may not be ‘gospel’, the majority of the time, it sends us in the right direction.

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"The trouble isn’t that we have too much information at our fingertips, but that our tools for managing it are still in their infancy"

A rather excellent quote from Anastasia Vasilakis at The Atlantic, who argues that the internet is in fact making, or forcing, us to become smarter.

Full article here.

So I thought I’d bring another school of thought to this argument about the benefits and consequences of the web. This is a video of William Davidow, ex-CEO and co-founder of Intel, and author of “Overconnected”.

Davidow, a well-known proponent, and now somewhat sceptic of the world-wide-web, is of the opinion that the internet is simply causing us to be in a state of “overconnectivity”, where we have too many connections in the digital realm to manage effectively. He does not talk so much of the internet causing a reduction in the intelligence of its users, but he identifies our reliance upon it, and our inability to comprehend the depth of its influence and power.

I highly recommend watching at least the 3:00 - 18:00 of this video to get an idea of where he is coming from - it’s no coincidence that an absolute technophile has been considering the sentiments of technophobes. His recent book “Overconnected”, however, offers a much more in-depth, analytical explanation of the influence of the web on our economy, politics and everyday lives.

If you think you can last a whole book.

=)

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Pew Research Center

So Pew Research Center, an academic center and publisher, conducted a study in February 2010 to gauge the public opinion on Nicholas Carr’s article - is Google making us stupid:

Source: http://pewresearch.org/assets/publications/1499-9.jpg

They concluded that the general masses do not support Carr’s theory that the proliferation of the internet as an information source and supply network is causing  people to become ‘stupid’.

Based on the phrasing of the question asked - “By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has not enhanced human intelligence” - I admit that I find it hard to argue against the results. I would find it hard to believe that the internet would not have a positive effect on human intelligence in the next ten years, if only because of the ‘unprecedented’ access to information that it provides.

The issue I have with this study is that it doesn’t examine exactly what intelligence means in the context of Carr’s article, or in the context of a physical being and human mind in the digital world. It identifies intelligence purely as IQ, rather than considering the deeper implications of the word.

As Carr states himself:

"What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking."

The key phrase in this quote being “utilitarian intelligence”, or intelligence that is defined only by the need for its existence. Intelligence is often to be how much someone knows, and how quickly and accurately they can recall it. The majority of us realise, though, through our “contemplative intelligence” and common sense, that it is not merely knowing the information that makes us ‘smart’, but being able to use it in a meaningful way.

When we neglect to consider the full and complete context of the information we encounter, we fail to truly understand its intentions. A failure to comprehend means either a poorly constructed argument, or a weak mind interpreting.

You can find the Pew Research Center study, along with Carr’s and Google’s commentary here.

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Mind Over Mass Media

Just a quick point on this article by Steven Pinker

- Yes you’re right, the internet is ‘distracting’ and ‘distraction’ is nothing new. That’s not the problem though. The problem is that the form of ‘distraction’ that the internet has created is so invasive, and so inherently a part of our everyday lives for its efficient dispersal of information, that traditional ways of thinking are compromised. The demand for ‘deep reading’ and ‘deep thinking’ is decreasing, and as such, so is the supply. The information gap is closing.

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Sanity in the "Web Makes us Dumber" debate

Ahhh finally, I managed to find an opposing argument. Maybe you’ve just gotta show some commitment and research skills.

Maybe the internet is just making ‘dumb’ people appear ‘smarter’ and ‘smart’ people appear ‘dumber’.

"I am so smart, I am so smart, S-M-R-A-T, I am so smart! D’oh!"