The Internet and Stupidity:

I have hesitated to jump into the “Is the Internet making us stupid?” debate, because it seems, well, stupid – the debate, that is. (Indeed, the attention being paid to the debate is itself evidence that maybe the Internet is making us stupid . . .). It seems stupid because the underlying premises are so obvious as to be hardly worth arguing about. Is the Internet changing the way we think? Well, duh. Of course it is, in any number of ways. All significant changes in the means we use to communicate with our fellow human beings change the way we think – the book did, the telephone did, radio did, and TV did, and the Internet did/is/will. [Clay Shirky makes this point quite well in his essay here]. It’s interesting and amusing, I suppose, to sit around and catalogue the various ways in which that is true (though personally I don’t find that kind of navel-gazing terribly interesting).

Are those changes making us “stupider”? Depends what you mean — obvious point #2. Last I looked, there was no objective and universal definition of “smart,” (or “stupid”), other than the ability to navigate through and understand the world in which you live; as the world changes, smart and stupid necessarily change with it. Every one of those earlier shifts in communications technologies was accompanied by claims that it would make us all stupider (interestingly, the person making the claim rarely asserts that he or she has been made stupid; it’s all about the children — oh, our poor children!! How stupid they are becoming!! They could be studying Horace’s Odes instead of wasting so much of their time on the telephone!!). Books made people much stupider — if you define smart to include the ability to carry on an oral tradition of literature (and of course, many people did define it that way, because that ability was of deep importance in a world without books). If “the ability to navigate through and understand the world of 1950” is the definition of “smart,” then yes, the Internet is making us stupider. But it seems awfully silly to me to suggest that the Internet is making us stupider in our interactions with the world that includes the Internet in it. I must be missing something here, because people seem to think there’s some profound kernal lurking in all this, but I just don’t see it.