Did Gutenberg make us stupid?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on March 3, 2010

When I was a much younger man in graduate school, my MBA classmates and I were prohibited from using calculators in finance classes. The reasoning was that we would not be able to calculate present value if our calculators broke down and we were forced to make calculations manually. By the time I received an advanced degree-several years later at another institution-calculators were as common as pencils and erasers used to be.

All my children used calculators in school, and did their homework on desktop computers at home. By the time they entered college, they required laptops as well, which enabled them to complete assignments and work on papers and theses anytime, anywhere, but also kept them connected on campus to their then budding online social networks, which evolved from messaging and chat to Friendster, Multiply, Facebook, and Twitter.

Research conducted by Pew Research Center shows that online platforms are the third most popular source of information after local and national broadcast stations for adults. The easy reliance on online sources of information has some observers worried that what the calculator threatened to do to the minds of young kids, the Internet today is doing to everyone: Making us stupid.

The debate is a fierce one. Wireless industry consultant Dean Bubley asked Pew researchers last month, “Did (Johannes) Gutenberg make us stupid” by inventing the printing press because we no longer had to remember as many details? On the contrary, he argues, “the Internet is likely to be front-and-center in any developments related to improvements in neuroscience and human cognition research,” suggesting a steep price for not embracing the technology.

Tech scholar Nicholas Carr-who initially posited the argument that the Internet is making us stupid in the Atlantic Monthly-argues that “What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking.” In Carr’s perspective, we’re becoming superficial and uninteresting as a result of the Internet.

Respondents to a “Future of the Internet” survey conducted by Pew and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center overwhelmingly appear to believe that Carr is guilty of overstating his argument, and that Bean is closer to the truth. Eight-one percent of experts and 76% of total respondents to the survey agreed with the statement, “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.”

Only 16% of experts and 21% of total respondents appeared to believe that, “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.” Let’s see what the facts say.

Researchers at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD) found that the average American in 2008 was bombarded by 34 gigabytes per day of information, mostly video games and television. Only about 0.1% of that data flood consisted of written words. In fact, prior to the advent of the Internet, reading was on the decline. Since 1980 it has almost tripled thanks to the Internet, according to a recent report in The Economist based on UCSD research.

There’s more. In the past, reading was largely a passive activity, which makes learning difficult because readers typically get sleepy or bored after twenty or thirty minutes. Today, half of all bytes are received interactively allowing Internet users to embed and retain knowledge more easily because they are living an experience rather than acting as a data receptor. But are we learning more deeply, or just broadly and superficially nevertheless?

That probably depends on the individual, just as it has in the past. So much information exists on particular niches of inquiry that a researcher, consultant, or expert can build a career around very focused business practices or scientific research, for example. As long as there is demand for that expertise, the individual has a chance to own the niche, and be its preeminent authority.

But the tradeoff is broader knowledge about the world in which we work and play. The explosion in the availability of information makes so much more opportunity available to the average individual than ever before. But the individual much prioritize and choose from among those opportunities. So the Internet is not making us more stupid, it’s making our choices much more difficult.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.)

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