A couple years ago there was an article in the Atlantic headlined Is Google Making us Stupid? It got a lot of attention at the time and now the author, Nicholas Carr, has followed it up with a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which is a more accurate title, since it is not specifically Google but the effects of Internet in general that is being questioned. I haven't read the book yet -- I don't believe it's been released -- but I can set your (softening) mind at ease right now with the answer to the fundamental question:
Yes, the Internet is making us stupider. This is not to say that it's a bad thing (or good thing for that matter), just a fact about what is happening and will continue to happen no matter how much hand wringing and alarmism we can muster.
The trend toward stupidity is nothing new or unique and the more general trend by which we are weakening is not at all specific to the Internet or to our intelligence. It is part of the fundamental nature of humanity and our ability to create new technologies.
I would formulate the general rule as follows:
Technology makes people worse at doing whatever the technology helps them do.
But I guess it's better summed up by the quip "invention is the mother of necessity".
Examples are countless, but here are a few random ones in no particular order:
- Matches made us worse at lighting fires with flint
- Books made us worse at memorizing oral traditions, epic poems, etc.
- Cell phones made us worse at remembering phone numbers
- Word processors made us worse at spelling and handwriting
- Shoes made us worse at walking barefoot
- Machinery and modern agriculture have made us physically weaker and fatter
- Telephones have made us worse letter writers
You can take pretty much any invention, look what it helps people do and find a corresponding decline in skill that is its result. Just picture yourself dropped off naked in the forest and consider how difficult it would be to survive. We don't always think of them as such, but simple things such as clothes, shoes, shelter and fire are of course technologies that we didn't use to need. Our early ancestors survived without them thanks to skills and strengths that most of humanity has long since lost.
Now you might say that there's a difference between not being able to light a fire with a flint and not being able to think clearly. Because the Internet helps us with information itself, relying on it and sacrificing our internal abilities -- our smarts -- is far more serious.
Yes, it's true. But it's also true something great was lost when, after the adoption of writing, the last generation that knew the Iliad by heart died off. But that's the way it goes and nobody's complaining that literacy made us stupid, even though in some ways it did. After all it is not the raw ability of a person in isolation that matters -- the hypothetical naked person in the woods -- but the total capacity of a person in their real environment, with their available technologies. Matches in fact made us better at lighting fires, telephones helped us keep in touch, literacy helped us tell stories, etc.
Today our real environment is overflowing with constantly improving technology. The more technology we have available, the faster we can invent more technology, causing an acceleration of innovation that is now approaching an inflection point of radical change. Sooner than I think most people realize it will alter humanity in ways impossible to predict. In fact it's already happening. As it continues to pick up pace we will become more and more dependent on technology and yet capable of doing so much more with its help. As computer interfaces begin connecting directly with our brains our dependence will accelerate further as will our effective capabilities. As computers surpass (natural) human intelligence, the distinction between us and our technology may be impossible to discern, or at least will no longer be relevant.
So I guess my point is that on the one hand alarm over the Internet making us bad at reading Tolstoy is overblown because it's part of a trend that's nothing new, and on the other hand it's wildly understated because it is about to lead to the end humanity as we know it.
I'd give humanity as we now understand it forty or fifty years on the outside.
And there's nothing short of the end of civilization -- a real possibility given a nuclear war or some other technology related catastrophe -- that is going to stop it.