Thursday, July 21, 2011

Culture Shock 07.21.11: No, the Internet is not making you stupid

Google the question "Is Google making us stupid?" and you'll get roughly 640,000 results.

Like every new technology, the Internet is going through that phase when it gets the blame for everything wrong with the world.

The Internet exploded into the mainstream in the mid-1990s, so it's been a very long phase. But 15 or so years is nothing. Fifty years after Newton N. Minow, then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called television a "vast wasteland," TV still takes heat for all sorts of societal ills, from youth violence (even though youth violence has been steadily going down since the 1970s) to childhood obesity (which you could easily blame on any sedentary activity, like reading a book).

The claim that the Internet is making us stupid got a level-up this past week after publication of a study showing that the Internet is actually changing how we think and remember things.

Now, as it happens, the authors of the study said, explicitly, that their findings did not — I repeat, not — mean the Internet is making us stupid.

"I don't think Google is making us stupid — we're just changing the way that we're remembering things," lead author Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University told the BBC. "If you can find stuff online even while you're walking down the street these days, then the skill to have, the thing to remember, is where to go to find the information."

Basically, our brains are getting better at knowing where and how to find stuff, but at the expense of just remembering stuff, and that's because we're unconsciously training, and rewiring, our brains to work that way by how we use the Internet.

For some people, this is a self-evidently bad thing.

Yet if so, why stop there? The Internet isn't the first technology to alter the workings of our brains.

Centuries ago, our ancestors had fantastic memories that put ours, even pre-Internet, to shame. Bards and poets in the ancient Greek world could recite, from memory, epic tales of gods and heroes that, when written down today, run on for hundreds of pages. True, they used repeating lines and other mnemonic tricks to keep everything straight, but they really did have memories built for recalling a lot of information.

If behavior can rewire the human brain, then that's exactly what you'd expect, because the Greeks who lived in the dark ages between the fall of the Bronze Age city states and the rise of classical Athens, were, by and large, illiterate. This is when bards created the oral tradition of epic poetry that would eventually find its way into print as "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

The finished works we have today, attributed to the blind poet Homer, may not have been written down until the classical period, centuries after their composition began. Before that, these unwritten stories were passed down by memory, bard to bard, generation to generation.

Arguably the greatest, most influential works of Western literature were composed by illiterates, who relied not on writing but on their remarkable recall.

So, if you're really worried about technology robbing people of their ability to remember things, start with writing. That's where the trouble all began.

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