Are the Internet Really Making Us More Stupidist?



When Socrates famously warned about the effect that books would have on learning – he worried the written word would make people forgetful and too reliant on external characters – he certainly wasn’t the first man to question whether new was inherently better than old. He certainly wasn’t the last, either.

Sadly, there’s not one person alive today who can tell us about the day the wheel was invented, but if that early discovery was anything like subsequent human inventions, you can be sure there was at least one person warning about the negative impact such a contraption would have on our early ancestors.

Speaking out against technology may be a pastime for oddballs, but it is important to remember that moving forward isn’t always the same as progressing.

Just ask Nicholas Carr, author of Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains and his subsequent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

According to Carr, the internet is a confusing, over-stimulating place, where we douse ourselves in too much information to properly take any in. As he says in The Shallows: “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words […] Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

While I’m not convinced by Carr’s argument that the internet is changing our brains in a negative way, I certainly agree with him that the internet has changed how we consume information.

If you like photos of cats pulling stupid faces, dogs farting or a Star Wars mash-up compiled by a Canadian teenager, then it’s not likely clicking on that content is eating into your Plato reading time.

The internet itself is nothing but a post-modern pastiche/parody of 21st century life, where the best and worst of human culture is available. If you spend your time surfing the web for LOLcats then the internet is no more to blame for your stupidity than a library is if you sit inside one while reading Spider-Man comics.

But as the American philosopher Nicholas M. Butler once said, “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less.”

As a regular – almost constant – Twitter user, I certainly know less and less about more and more. I’ve skimmed countless essays, blogposts and articles from tweeted links. I’ve also read more books this past year – all discovered via Twitter – than in the previous five years combined. I’d certainly be more use in a pub quiz than two years ago, but still pretty useless in an in-depth debate about one issue.

Twitter users who follow the author Greg Stekelman (@themanwhofell) will be more than familiar with his constant stream-of-consciousness tweeting, an approach that has got him thousands of followers and surely sold more copies of his book.

But at what cost? As Stekelman said in a recent blogpost

In the four years since I wrote my first novel, friends and peers have finished their second and third books. They have stepped away from the pits of instant self-gratification and immersed themselves in things that take time: plot, character, visions, revisions, editing, correcting, polishing. And it’s something I find almost impossible to do. Aside from work, this blog entry is probably the longest thing I’ve written in months. And even now, my brain hurts.

As we’re only a couple of generations into using the internet, it’s way too early to declare it as fundamentally good or bad, despite the numerous articles cropping up for or against Carr’s hypothesis.

And as with any important issues, the effect anything has is far more complicated than a simple binary declaration can make it appear. But then we’d all remember that if we weren’t so easily distracted by videos of cats being si….