The Internet is making us smarter, but is it making me dumber?
One of today’s most interesting debates is brewing between Clay Shirky and Nick Carr, about whether the internet is making us smarter or dumber. They each have a book arguing their positions: Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”, and Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.” They even had dueling WSJ op-eds (Carr, Shirky).
But Carr and Shirky are talking about very different topics. Shirky is talking about the effect of the Internet on us, as a society. Carr is talking about the effect of the Internet on me, as an individual.
All the examples in Shirky’s book – open source, Wikipedia, and a whole raft of social websites – have two common themes. They use the Internet to aggregate a vast number of small pieces of information that would be useless on their own. The best example of this class is a website where users write reviews for various products, or an aggregator like ushahidi.com where individual reports from disparate users are used to piece together a larger picture. Another theme is the use of the Internet as a coordination medium, to enable and harness the action of diverse groups. Examples of this are charity groups, Wikipedia, and websites that let you find carpool rides. The book is all about society, groups, and collective action.
Digital natives will find the conclusions of Shirky’s book quite self-evident – after all, they grew up with it. Of course the Internet can be used to connect and coordinate disparate groups, and assemble large and complex collective works. So what’s the news? His real contribution is the exposition leading up to those conclusions. Why do people engage in this seemingly altruistic collective behavior? What kind of culture is needed to cultivate it?
On the other hand, Carr’s book tackles a much more focused question: how does the Internet affect the way one thinks? The entire book is about the effects of the Internet on individual cognition.
I am no Luddite, but at an individual level I do sympathize with Carr’s motivation. The germ for the book was his own struggle with a shift in the way he thought. That shift is real, and I suspect it’s discussion strikes a chord with everyone who has spent some fraction of their adult life in the era before the Internet. I too have found my attention shredded by surfing the web and rapid multitasking. I too sometimes wish for time when a single book could occupy an entire afternoon.
But those who label him a Luddite misunderstand his arguments. I don’t think he is arguing for turning back the Internet, or for stopping its use – just tempering it.
They are both talking about the same thing – the Internet – but very different aspects of it. And that is why they keep talking past each other. Shirky keeps talking about society and collective action. Carr keeps talking about the brain and neuroscience and cognition. The disconnect between them and be summed up as follows: the Internet might be making us smarter, but is it making me dumber?