Did the Internet make us less smart? That is a question asked in different ways by a range of writers, commentators, and thought leaders over the past decade. It is an extension of a question of a different sort. When we replace certain kinds of tasks of some difficultly but important to our survival, well-being, or living functions, with tools or systems that are more streamlined do we lose something in the process?
Ease in-place of Difficulty
Long ago, people who drove a car once needed to know how to change the oil in their cars. If you wanted to drive a vehicle and continue doing so, you had better know how to change the oil, change the tires, and do basic service on your vehicle. As the automotive service industry rose, the need for these skills declined. You can still develop these skills today and having them can enhance your use of a vehicle, but many would agree that taking a vehicle to a service facility would result in better upkeep of the vehicle.
Some comments about the Internet have gone along the lines of intimating that spending time on social networks, chatting, and texting is a waste of time. I would offer that the time spent in online is a valuable activity. Privacy not withstanding, the time spent online is quite valuable to the understanding and knowledge of everyone involved.
The Web Increases Knowledge
I lack statistical information. But in terms of magnitude, it seems to me that far more people are engaged in writing and reading now than 20 years ago. When people post to a social network, they are engaged in the act of written composition. Likewise, as they follow the posts of others, they are applying their senses to the interpretation of written information. Some people may disagree with the nature of the content but objectively, one part of the Web encourages literacy and similar effort to write and share ideas and sentiments.
Fewer people today are reading Hamlet in their adulthood and fewer still are reading literary journals about the exploration of a given point or another regarding Shakesperean classics. I have forgotten all about literary form, but when I was exposed to it, I remember a process that was rigorous, structured and based on upon rational principles. Adoption of these principles when well understood and applied often lead to written works of consistent and ordered structure with clear portrayal of the concepts, situations, and conditions described. In all likelihood, much of the prose of the Web generated spontaneously, and some of a more concerted kind, may compare less well in terms of structure and coherence to the works of earlier eras.
More likely, the skills of composition one would develop decades ago are not lost today. They are still there to be developed. However, the difficulty of publishing your content has been replaced with tools that streamline the delivery of information. It does not mean you will be heard or that you will be relevant. Motivations do exist to publish, post, and comment on the Web and the reasons vary. When you combine all the users of the Web across professional and private situations, over a billion people are engaged in reading and millions are engaged in writing. One of the things we all have learned collectively is that not everyone is Earnest Hemingway in terms of how they write or how well they write but that form does not interfere with having one’s voice heard. That more people are reading and writing is a great start towards gaining more knowledge, improving understanding, and clarifying the knowledge of reality.
Making a Mark
Information a person posts to the Web can exist indefinitely. This can be a problem in terms of privacy and it can be an issue for a future politician’s or senior leader’s future reputation. Consider information posted by a 40-year old individual they wrote in their 20’s or 30’s that reappears undermining their present efforts close a deal or get elected to higher office. While the 40-year old version of this individual may differ from the 30-year version, they are nonetheless immortalized by their most unflattering disclosure in terms of social media posts or poorly cast web log. Some aspects of the Web are there to capture the online past in all its glory. Sites such as archive.org will capture a snapshot of a website so that years later, the way that website looked on the date of that snapshot could be seen on archive.org. Admittedly, archive.org does fail to maintain some sites and some web page snapshots do fall off, but that does not mean that some other archival service (public or private) does not have some information that was previously available online.
When you post online you leave a mark that may last for decades if not more. It will depend on how long the Internet will last, how long will the service you posted to will last (some services that seem strong today could have a change in fortunes tomorrow) and if the format you posted to is still widely known and accessible. If the Internet does last (and that is not guaranteed, no more so than printing books was), then you can expect that your posts will endure. Those posts can become part of your history and those of generations that follow you. In this way, your posts can become a kind of heirloom in the public domain.
One of the challenges for any future society is to understand earlier people, what they believed and what they thought. To the extent the Internet survives, future people will know more about the people of the early 21st century than about any people that existed prior. That is assuming that the Internet does survive or, more specifically, the hard drives or storage containing the Internet posts. It is not a foregone conclusion that it would all survive, but it might. If it does, posting content today can be a valuable gift of insight to generations of the future. Despite how your own life develops, what you express today can serve to shape the opinions and course of the future in some way. Maybe a very small way, perhaps more substantially than you know, but your effort to write, to learn, and share knowledge about life, sorrows, hopes, the intellectual and the sublime will be useful information for the future curious.
The YouTube videos about people’s response to political developments are quite enlightening as is CNN iReports. There is a massive amount of information on blogs, social networks, and discussion forums of a diverse kind that is informative. The question about whether or not the Internet has made us less smart is clear. The sheer amount of information created and the reception to that information seems to indicate that rather than make us less smart, the Internet has sharpened our understanding to new levels.
By Michael Gautier