A conversation I was having with a coworker inspired me to write something about this. It’s no secret that we are much more connected to information than we used to be. According to the World Internet Usage Statistics taken in December 2010, 1,966,514,816 people in the world have Internet access. That led me to think, with more access to information, whether that be reading news articles online, follow Tweets or learning more about the everyday lives of our friends, are we getting smarter?
In the summer of 2010, researchers at Stanford University performed an experiment to try and find out if the ability to multitask online was giving people mental advantages. This came from other research out of Germany that found that people browsing the Web usually spent less than 10 seconds looking at a page.
For the experiment, researchers gave various cognitive tests to 49 people who do a good deal of media multitasking and 52 people who multitask less frequently. What the researchers found was the heavy multitaskers performed poorly on all the tests and were more easily distracted, had less control over their attention, and were much less able to distinguish important information from trivia. In addition to these results, neuroscientist Michael Merzenich believes peoples’ brains are being “massively remodelled” by our intensifying use of the web and related media. In the 1970s and 1980s, he conducted a famous series of experiments that revealed how quickly and strongly neural circuits change in response to experience. In 2009, he stated that he was very worried about the cognitive consequences of the constant distractions and interruptions the Internet brings upon us. He said the long-term effect on the quality of our intellectual lives could be “deadly.”
Well this information disproves my theory. But what about retention and memorization of information? I think most would agree that today there is less of a focus on these two practices but more of a focus on finding that information. For example. my grandfather, who is a Yale University graduate, is incredibly smart. He literally retains everything he reads. He can recall poems he learned in elementary school and the entire timeline of a Civil War battle from history books he read years ago. While this is a valuable talent to have and I highly envy him for it, at the same time, he is not as knowledgeable about where to look for this information. He reads The New York Times every morning and a different book probably every week. But think what else he might be able to learn, what opinions he might get to see a different side from if he was on Twitter, or followed blogs, or went to multiple news sources online.
I can honestly say, thanks to my Google Reader and Twitter, I am better informed. I am forced to be notified of articles, photographs, opinions and links to other sources that I wouldn’t normally find had I been looking in one place for one thing. I can tell my friends and colleagues about an article I was brought to or a statistic that I was led to, thus passing on useful information that they may not have normally known.
I think this debate can go either way and in one sense, I think the Internet is making us stupider but at the same time is definitely allowing us gain access to more information. It certainly can be argued that it is up to us what information we want to explore. And if it is educational and allows us to use our brains, we may find humankind is in fact getting smarter.