Hello, everyone. Today I’m looking at three articles that discuss the Internet and it’s effects on our cognitive abilities as well as our learning strategies. If you’d like to read the articles in question ahead of this post, check the reference section at the end. The last article may require you to sign up for a free account over at Science, but it is well worth it if you’re looking for a great database of articles from various physical and social science disciplines, including education.

Let’s begin with the articles by Carr and Shirky. While Carr argues in his article that the Internet is making us “dumber,” Shirky’s article is the antithesis of this idea. Both present valid points, but I personally find Shirky’s article to be the most sensible of the two. Here’s why.

Carr’s article is primarily concerned with attention and the ability to concentrate. Carr (2010) argues that unless we focus on something completely, the proper neural connections are unable to form that allow for more than just the insertion of information into our short-term memory. The problem with the Internet, he asserts, is that it is full of distractions and keeps us constantly multitasking, unable to focus our attention on one thing at a time (¶4).

From here the article is plagued with references to various studies and research that just don’t seem to make a strong enough argument to be convincing. One study that was mentioned concerned how a group that frequently does media multitasking performed more poorly on cognitive tests than a group that multitask less frequently (¶8). In another section, experiments that reveal how quickly neural circuits change in response to stimulus and experience is discussed (¶11).

While I don’t doubt that these things are true and hold some weight, the problem is that Carr fails to talk about the control of the individual. Certainly there are many distractions on the Internet today, with ads and links to other sites littering most pages that we visit. We don’t have to click these, however. While I have been guilty of being distracted by the arrival of a new email on my phone while reading an article in the past, I can just as easily sit down and read through the same article without checking my phone if I so choose. Carr chooses to condemn the medium of the Internet and digital media itself instead of the lack of self-control of the individual. This is the same mentality of those that blame violent video games for the actions of deranged individuals in certain high-profile cases. I, however, am not one to take blame out of the hands of the wrongdoer.

In the last few paragraphs of his article, Carr (2010) seems to be attempting to make a case for printed books versus the Internet, so I wonder if he also views digital versions of books as “evil” (¶13). I could go on and say that part of the reason some people may prefer books to digital versions could be that the devices they read them on provide too many distractions that don’t allow them to concentrate, but that is a topic for a different blog post.

Shirky’s article argues for the Internet as a tool that has increased our mental capabilities. He paints detractors like Carr as fear mongers, much like those who warned of the evils of print in centuries past. While Shirky (2010) does not talk about neurological effects of the Internet, he does point out its efficiency with things such as collaborative efforts where collective cognitive energy is pooled to accomplish something as massive as Wikipedia in less than 10 years time while using 100 million hours of human thought (¶8). Indeed, the sharing of information and near-instantaneous peer feedback that the Internet allows for more than makes up for the distractions it causes that can be overcome with some self-discipline, however hard it may be.

In the last few pages of Shirky’s article, he also calls out other opponents of the Internet who criticize it for its abundance of incorrect information and amateur publications. Shirky (2010) notes that there are, and always have been, far more mediocre materials in print than those of quality (¶10-11). Even before the advent of the Internet age, he says, the majority of people spent more time watching TV than reading (¶14). In the end, Shirky seems to be taking a “you can’t have the good without the bad” stance, which I seem to mirror.

Bohannon’s article, the final of the three, also seems to favor the Internet for the benefits it provides. In one single page, Bohannon (2011) cites how incredibly efficient we are at remembering where information is stored (¶8). The article goes on to discuss how we offload some of the demands on our memory to Google, Wikipedia, etc (¶9). Indeed, while this reliance on technology may not be great for remembering information for tests, in the real-world, we can refer to resources whenever we need them, whether that be a digital source or a book.

After reading these three articles, and perhaps because of my own personal bias for technology, I weigh in on the side that recognizes the pitfalls of the Internet, but realizes that these are small in comparison to the many benefits we get from being so connected to an abundance of information. After all, without the Internet, I could not write this blog and share ideas with all of you.

So where do you weight in, dear readers? Is the Internet is making us smarter or more stupid?

 

References:

Carr, N. (2010, June 5). Does the Internet make you dumber? Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704025304575284981644790098.html

Shirky, C. (2010, June 4). Does the Internet make you smarter? Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704025304575284973472694334.html

Bohannon, J. (2011, July 15). Searching for the Google effect on people’s memory. Science, 333(6040), 277. doi:10.1126/science.333.6040.277

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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Your point about personal choice (whether to yield to the temptation of reading that just-arrived e-mail, for example) is oh-so-true. Why *must* one immediately check that new message? The thought that often comes to mind is how becoming distracted is treated like an inevitable occurrence, which, of course, it is not. The same is true, I think, in the discourse surrounding kids’ cell phones here in Japan: “There are horrible monsters on the Internet” (and thus children will inevitably be sucked into the vortex). Remember when we were taught to “never take rides with strangers”? Individual choice and some common sense, methinks.

    Reply
  2. […] touches on something that I mentioned in my first blog post, noting that we already use technology such as electronic storage and mobile phones to offload some […]

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