Is the Internet Making Us Stupid – or a New Kind of Smart?

First published September 9, 2010 inn Mediapost’s Search Insider

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I’m reading Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows.” His basic premise is that our current environment, with its deluge of available information typically broken into bite-sized pieces served up online, is “dumbing down” our brains.  We no longer read, we scan. We forego the intellectual heavy lifting of prolonged reading for the more immediate gratification of information foraging. We’re becoming a society of attention-deficit dolts.

It’s a grim picture, and Carr does a good job of backing up his premise. I’ve written about many of these issues in the past. And I don’t dispute the trends that Carr chronicles (at length). But is Carr correct is saying that online is dulling our intellectual capabilities, or is it just creating a different type of intelligence?

While I’m at it, I suspect this new type of intelligence is much more aligned with our native abilities than the “book smarts” that have ruled the day for the last five centuries. I’m an avid reader (ironically, I’ve been reading Carr’s book on an iPad) and I’m the first to say that I would be devastated if reading goes the way of the dodo.  But are we projecting our view of what’s “right” on a future where the environment (and rules) have changed?

A Timeline of Intellect

If you expand your perspective of human intellectualism to the entire history of man, you find that the past 500 years have been an anomaly. Prior to the invention of the printing press (and the subsequent blossoming of intellectualism) our brains were there for one purpose: to keep us alive. The brain accomplished this critical objective through one of three ways:

Responding to Danger in Our Environments

Reading is an artificial human activity. We have to train our brains to do it. But scanning our surroundings to notice things that don’t fit is as natural to us as sleeping and eating. We have sophisticated, multi-layered mechanisms to help us recognize anomalies in our environment (which often signal potential danger).  I believe we have “exapted” these same mechanisms and use them every day to digest information presented online.

This idea goes back to something I have said repeatedly: Technology doesn’t change behavior, it enables behavior to change. Change comes from us pursuing the most efficient route for our brains. When technology opens up an option that wasn’t previously available, and the brain finds this a more natural path to take, it will take it. It may seem that the brain is changing, but in actuality it’s returning to its evolutionary “baseline.”

If the brain has the option of scanning, using highly efficient inherent mechanisms that have been created through evolution over thousands of generations, or reading, using jury-rigged, inefficient neural pathways that we’ve been forced to build from scratch through our lives, the brain will take the easiest path. The fact was, we couldn’t scan a book. But we can scan a Web site.

Making The Right Choices

Another highly honed ability of the brain is to make advantageous choices. We can consider alternatives using a combination of gut instincts (more than you know) and rational deliberation (less than you think) and more often than not, make the right choice. This ability goes in lock step with the previous one, scanning our environment.

Reading a book offers no choices. It’s a linear experience, forced to go in one direction. It’s an experience dictated by the writer, not the reader. But browsing a Web site is an experience littered with choices.  Every link is a new choice, made by the visitor. This is why we (at my company) have continually found that a linear presentation of information (for example, a Flash movie) is a far less successful user experience than a Web site where the user can choose from logical and intuitive navigation options.

Carr is right when he says this is distracting, taking away from the focused intellectual effort that typifies reading. But I counter with the view that scanning and making choices is more naturally human than focused reading.

Establishing Beneficial Social Networks

Finally, humans are herders. We naturally create intricate social networks and hierarchies, because it’s the best way of ensuring that our DNA gets passed along from generation to generation. When it comes to gene propagation, there is definitely safety in numbers.

Reading is a solitary pursuit. Frankly, that’s one of the things avid readers treasure most about a good book, the “me” time that it brings with it. That’s all well and good, but bonding and communication are key drivers of human behavior. Unlike a book, online experiences offer you the option of solitary entertainment or engaged social connection. Again, it’s a closer fit with our human nature.

From a personal perspective, I tend to agree with most of Carr’s arguments. They are a closer fit with what I value in terms of intellectual “worth.” But I wonder if we fall into a trap of narrowed perspective when we pass judgment on what’s right and what’s not based on what we’ve known, rather than on what’s likely to be.

At the end of the day, humans will always be human.

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