Survey: Internet Doesn’t Make People Dumber

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By now we’ve all heard the argument that instant-availability of search engines like Bing, Yahoo, and Google coupled with an always-on, fast-cut, constantly-multitasking mentality of Internet users reduces people’s attention spans and reduces capacities for critical thought and analysis—Nicholas Carr’s 2009 article in the Atlantic Monthly “Is Google making us stupid?” ignited a firestorm of controversy. However, a new survey of nearly 900 Internet experts, academics, and industry leaders finds a strong majority believe the Internet helps people make better and smarter choices in their lives.

The Web-based survey was conducted by the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University in North Carolina and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found three our of four experts said use of the Internet “enhances and augments human intelligence,” while two-thirds said the Internet has improved “reading, writing and rendering of knowledge.” Study co-author Janna Anderson did note, that “There are still many people, however, who are critics of the impact of Google, Wikipedia, and other online tools.”

David Ellis, a professor at York University in Toronto, argued in his comments that Google and tools like it generated a sort of intellectual laziness: “Like other major technologies, Google’s search functionality won’t push the human intellect in one predetermined direction. It will reinforce certain dispositions in the end-user: stronger intellects will use Google as a creative tool, while others will let Google do the thinking for them.”

Long-time Internet authority Esther Dyson took a similar tack: “The problem isn’t Google; it’s what Google helps us find. For some, Google will let them find useless content that does not challenge their minds. But for others, Google will lead them to expect answers to questions, to explore the world, to see and think for themselves.”

However, other respondents felt the technology was a strong positive. Craigslist found Craig Newmark wrote: “People are already using Google as an adjunct to their own memory. For example, I have a hunch about something, need facts to support, and Google comes through for me. Sometimes, I see I’m wrong, and I appreciate finding that out before I open my mouth.” And Paul Jones of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill wrote: “Google allows us to be more creative in approaching problems and more integrative in our thinking. We spend less time trying to recall and more time generating solutions.”