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Will the Internet make us stupider?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Few observers, in 2000, would have foreseen Facebook being a ubiquitous presence on the Internet in 2010. Even fewer would have felt comfortable predicting whether some phenomenon like it would be “good" or bad” for human interaction, or for society’s use of the English (or any other) language, for that matter. Undaunted by the perils of prognostication, the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project recently asked nearly 900 tech-savvy professionals to “imagine the Internet” in 2020.

More specifically, the project presented people with five pairs of opposing statements, forcing them to choose one from each pair and to then explain why they made the choice. For example, one set of statements said:

By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices.


By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has not enhanced human intelligence, and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot.

Some 76 percent of the respondents said the Net would make us smarter. Okay, but why? That’s where the results become more interesting, noted Pew project director Lee Rainie, who presented the findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting this past weekend in San Diego. Rainie said Pew’s analysis indicated that the respondents thought that ever-greater use of the Internet will shift people’s cognitive capacities. People will spend less of their mental energy memorizing facts and instead will spend more brain power synthesizing information and in critical thinking.

Another pair of questions essentially asked if the state of reading and writing would improve. Rainie was initially surprised to find that 65 percent opted for "improved," given the many ways in which texting, Tweeting and other messaging mediums maul the English language. But respondents seemed to agree that the mediums are encouraging people to read more and particularly to write more, and that users are likely to gradually begin to critique each other’s bad language habits, prompting society’s linguistic skills improve. (IMHO that may never happen, but u never know.)

One telling question had to do with how "open" the Internet can remain—whether disagreements over information flows will be resolved with a minimum number of restrictions, or whether intermediary institutions that control the architecture and significant amounts of content will gain the right to manage information and the method by which people access and share it. A full third of the respondents felt that by 2020 more control would be in force, which would violate a founding principle of both the Internet and the Web. The respondents cited recent events such as the clash between the Chinese government and Google management over the source and intent of cyber attacks, and also felt that users may even accept some level of restrictions if they thought the measures would help ward off potential evils such as identity theft.

More results are available from the project, called The Future of the Internet: IV.

Photo from iStockPhoto/joshblake


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  1. 1. candide 3:50 pm 02/24/2010

    It already has.

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  2. 2. ajhil 4:14 pm 02/24/2010

    From the caliber of writing currently employed on the Internet it’s bound to improve, because it certainly couldn’t get any worse! As for "critical thinking" I’ve never encountered more abysmal stupidity in my life than the average Internet user displays. 99.999% of them are certifiable morons and ignorant as dirt.

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  3. 3. Bill Case 7:33 pm 02/24/2010

    I agree with @candide. However, when I think about the modern access to information in a social setting, I see gains and losses. One of the gains is that I am less inclined to BS in ordinary conversations. I.e. by BS I mean I ( and others) might use (make up) facts that we kinda, sorta, maybe vaguely remember. Now I look things up quickly to refresh my memory before I pop off. On the other hand, a request for information from a friend use to be a good conversation starter. Now you are just as likely to get a URL to an authoritative site, in place of a sit down, a chat and a coffee.

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  4. 4. jonasxu 8:40 pm 02/24/2010

    Just evolution, I think.

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  5. 5. Bill Case 9:06 pm 02/24/2010

    Sorry, I mis-spoke. I disagree with @candide.

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  6. 6. hotblack 12:03 am 02/25/2010

    On the one hand, there were something like 85 billion google searches in 2008, 120 billion google searches in 2009, and growing. Before the internet, where were people able to look up this much information this quickly and easily?

    But then, on the other hand, googles most popular searches for 2009:

    As long as the quality information is pay-only

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  7. 7. abyssalmystery 1:03 am 02/25/2010

    I think there is plenty of parallels with other technologies like television and telephones. You could certainly say that there are benefits for any technology but there are down side as well. Who could argue that cell phones don’t have benefits such as instant contact with a loved one for safety and security reasons? On the other hand, driving has become more dangerous because of all the distracted drivers, not to mention the huge expenditures for this convenience.

    The internet has brought instant information on any subject which could only be a good thing. The downside is there is also a ton of bad information. I also worry that people my become dumber because they have to think less and less.

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  8. 8. 狒狒sun 8:41 am 02/25/2010

    It depends on the way you use the Internet,I think.

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  9. 9. 狒狒sun 8:43 am 02/25/2010

    It depends on the way you use the Internet.I think.We should only spend no more than 2hours pre day on the Internet.

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  10. 10. Crucialitis 11:47 am 02/25/2010

    In mature uses of the internet, grammar matters.
    The internet will only be making us collectively stupid when professional settings deem l337 speak and txt as acceptible forms of articulating a thought.

    …But by then we should be more afraid of Orwellian ‘new-speak’

    Ultimately, before this decade is done, we will be accessing the internet merely by thinking aloud, and receiving results privately giving the effect of "the smartest man in the room" because you’re able to talk to the compendium of all human knowledge inaudibly, and the compendium of all human knowledge knows how to answer you in plain English.

    So.. no. It hasn’t, and it won’t. Unless the user is already stupid and simply using it improperly – exacerbating preexisting stupidity.

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  11. 11. jtdwyer 12:04 pm 02/25/2010

    Crucialitis – Interesting visionary concepts, but why not simply provide intelligent internet proxies to represent ourselves to others, so that we can spend all of our time playing video games?

    Of course, in your example we’d have to be pretty smart to distinguish the compendium of human knowledge from the rest of the unedited BS.

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  12. 12. Crucialitis 12:22 pm 02/25/2010

    I don’t understand what you mean by "intelligent internet proxies". My root question is whether using them would allow you to actually touch things in the physical world from the virtual one? We’re pretty close to transitioning to a universe that has many layers of universes on top of it – but I don’t want to lose the utility of the actual universe.

    "Of course, in your example we’d have to be pretty smart to distinguish the compendium of human knowledge from the rest of the unedited BS."

    It’s a life-long learned skill. We’re already using it today to tell what info is credible, or which files have viruses. It’s a buyer beware situation, if your skills aren’t up to par, you’ll likely personally suffer from it.

    Just make sure you try to avoid the ‘press secretary’ of verbal search engines. Everything it’ll tell you is a lie.

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  13. 13. Biodiversivist 1:17 pm 02/25/2010

    My guess is that it will hamstring those millions of young men who have wasted so much of their adolescence playing video games, making them less competitive in the job market.

    It clearly enhances cognitive ability for those who actively blog and/or comment with the typed word or even those who read blogs a great deal without participating in debates.

    It helps ameliorate the extreme ignorance of the general American public, slowly but surely:

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  14. 14. Crucialitis 1:44 pm 02/25/2010

    "My guess is that it will hamstring those millions of young men who have wasted so much of their adolescence playing video games, making them less competitive in the job market."

    Depends on the job. Simulations have been shown to improve skills in regular life, besides the regular improvements in hand-eye coordination and visual acuity. Often gamers employ memory, attention to detail, and lateral thinking. Depending on the type of game, if it’s chat heavy, typing speed may improve. Businesses have even been known to hold meetings in virtual space to foster teamwork. It isn’t always things blowing up – although even that is likely beneficial to some extent. If the worst case scenario happens, I’d bet a gamer would be able to tell you how to load and fire an M4A1 in the absence of a soldier.

    At some point, even work will be virtual. I’d wager those WITHOUT gaming experience may suffer in that new paradigm. Take a look at the airforce troops that fly drones – completely presented using the tools of gamers. I doubt this will be the only occupation to follow this path – especially with more robotics research coming to fuition daily.

    A bigger spectre is the negative stigma older and reactionary generations seem to be all to glib in applying to the gaming culture. Especially in light of an all too apparent generational rift where folks 35 and under seem to accept it as a normal part of everyday life akin to the movie theater.

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  15. 15. TTLG 2:54 pm 02/25/2010

    I do not think that more restrictions on the internet would necessarily be a bad thing. While I wholeheartedly agree with free flow information, I think there is far too much disinformation flowing around. Newspapers once printed letters from anonymous people making false "factual" claims that the editors liked. That has passed, but now it happens regularly on the internet.

    I have nothing against people expressing opinions that disagree with mine, but only if they make it clear that they they are opinions. Right now people (most likely with vested interests) regularly make obviously false claims again and again without any restraint at all. At the very least I think that the anonymous aspect of the internet should go away. If someone is going to make claims, they should be required to put their name on them so others can see just who is making them.

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  16. 16. jtdwyer 3:32 pm 02/25/2010

    Crucialitis – You know – you could have responded to one of my little internet smurfs, which generates natural language contentious remarks in response to blog entries. My big internet Smurf handles the completion of all my work assignments, prepares my taxes and handles all other necessary drudgery, so I can continue to daydream offline.

    Yeah, I sure wish the war I was in could have been fought using virtual combatants – I’m sure we’ll never again be physically threatened with violence in the real world, now that virtual reality is available.

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  17. 17. brainguy 6:22 pm 02/25/2010

    I disagree with most comments. I think grammars has little to do with IQ.

    A high IQ is based on fast thinking with optimum connections between subjects, and that delivers great perception of the problems, and consequently fast results.

    I agree that "we" are stupider, but is not the internet that is the one to blame. Is the bread and circus (I call it be "dumb and happy") policy that bombard us on a daily basis.

    The question we should be asking is:

    You make us obnoxiously dumb tru mass media, so why are you blaming the Internet when you know the answer?

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  18. 18. dericklushine 7:27 pm 02/26/2010

    There is a typo in paragraph 2. The word "will" should actually be "with."

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  19. 19. ahmed.samir1900 12:10 pm 02/28/2010

    I’d like to say that Internet is both useful and harmful, but for whom it may be benefiting and unuseful. some, you can say most, of companies and institutions are relying on the Internet as a mean more easier than past ime ones. For the field iam working in- translation- I think it’s useful but not in so far. Usage of Internet decrease my memory capacity as I can search anything I want. By the end, Internet is worthy and unvaluable but how can we control its disgratful evil.

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  20. 20. pcunix 9:22 am 03/1/2010

    Apparently it hasn’t improved some folks vocabulary. Let’s see, is it more stupid to say "stupider" in an article like this than it would be elsewhere?

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  21. 21. Crucialitis 9:44 am 03/1/2010

    "Yeah, I sure wish the war I was in could have been fought using virtual combatants – I’m sure we’ll never again be physically threatened with violence in the real world, now that virtual reality is available."

    Sounds like sarcasm. Who was saying all of that?
    Besides, it’s not about a war in virtual reality. It’s about telecommuting the war – which they’re already doing. Hold your incredulity.

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  22. 22. homehive 4:44 pm 03/13/2010

    Before the internet, newspapers and television filtered the expressed opinions of the average citizen (letters to the editor, etc.), eliminating ideas they deemed ignorant. Now, unfiltered, we can all see how ineffective our various systems of education are at transferring knowledge/wisdom.

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