Smarter or Dumber?

I recently came across two interesting articles of the Wall Street Journal published in June 2010. Each of them competes against the other and provide some interesting thoughts about the Internet’s effect on society. The first article is Does the Internet Make You Smarter? by Clay Shirky which compares digital media creation to the print industry and brings out the positives in the endless streams of amateur digital content like collaboration to create open source software and enormous resources like Wikipedia. The second article published the next day, is Does the Internet Make You Dumber? by Nicholas Carr. Here he argues that easy access to unprecedented amounts of information makes us shallow thinkers and is always a constant source of distraction.

Both articles are though provoking and definitely worth reading. Each of them have valid points. Clay Shirky says that the digital revolution is in fact increasing the intellectual range of the society. The Net also is playing a very important part in restoring reading and writing as the central activities of our culture. As for the funny videos, spam and other perennial distractions, Shirky says that whenever media becomes more abundant, the quality falls and increase in quality will happen gradually as we bring in more controls. According to him, in the print media, we had erotic novels coming up over 100 years before the first scientific journals.

One point that I having strong feelings about is where Shirky says that:

“Reading is an unnatural act; Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it’s our turn to figure out what response we need to shape our use of digital tools.”

Nicholas Carr also has some very valid points on his side of the arguments. He focuses on the division of attention due to the internet affects our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration. It also is not limited to the time when we are using our digital devices. It also changes the habits of our mind adapting to the use of technology. He says that to read a book is to practice an unnatural process of thought. Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. It is this control, this mental discipline, that we are at risk of losing as we spend ever more time scanning and skimming online.

Rather than letting the medium take control, we should be in control. Of course, it is true that we have far more distractions than what our parents or grandparents had. It is our responsibility to recognize that and assert that control over the medium.

You should definitely read both articles if you haven’t already read them.