Once upon a time, we humans were capable of prodigious mnemonic feats. We could memorize and recite epic poems of astonishing length and detail, which we passed from one generation to the next with remarkable fidelity. This was happening from Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica, from the Mycenaean civilization to here in the Middle Kingdom.
Then we learned to write, and that ability atrophied. Today that lost oral tradition remains in a few corners of the world, but basically it's gone—and yes, there's certainly something sad in that fact.
Oh, but what we gained! The written word! The great literature! The ability to record our history!
When my esteemed opponent whines about the loss of the ability to concentrate on long, dense texts without distraction, I can't help but think his concerns are positively trivial.
Tom here fretting over the changes the internet has brought to our intellects is a bit like an ancient Sumerian reciter of the Gilgamesh epic lamenting the spread of cuneiform.
I'll happily entertain the argument that heavy internet use changes the way we think. Brains, after all, are nothing if not plastic. But the assertion that the internet has actually made us stupid just isn't well supported.
Do any of us honestly believe that our powers of concentration are enhanced by multitasking? Of course not. The question is, what are we gaining by having all this near-instantaneous access to information, and does it in some sense outweigh what we give up in sustained concentration?
What we gain is the ability to place what we do read in a vastly richer context, and to supply ourselves instantly with a variety of perspectives.
Not only that, but the internet gives us the ability to interact—at virtually no cost, and across vast distances—with other individuals; and of course it gives us the ability to participate, ourselves, in discourse. This social, interactive dimension of the internet can't be dismissed as just another source of distraction. It's the ability to collaborate in real time, to compare, to debate. That kind of connection and combination--that's a rich primordial soup out of which emergent phenomena are apt to arise.
Many have argued that what we've arguably surrendered in depth we've more than made up for in increased breadth—that we've had a net gain in total volume, in depth times breadth.
I'm more interested in another kind of breadth—the expansion of information horizons the internet has brought to a much, much greater portion of humanity. There's been, in short, a kind of democratization of intelligence.
When you hear people say that "the internet is making us stupid," you need to ask yourself who this "us" they're talking about actually is. If you think about it, in most cases it's implicitly being defined in a very elitist way: Is "us" just a privileged intelligentsia that enjoyed the luxury of uninterrupted hours of reading with concentration? I say let us use a more inclusive "us."
One that includes the hundreds of millions in lower-tier cities and in rural areas of China, for instance, who've begun using the internet just in the last five years: tell them that the internet's making "us" stupid. So a generation of privileged Americans and Brits find they can no longer power through chapter after chapter of Tolstoy or Proust. If a much larger generation of long impoverished people across the developing world are seeing their information horizons immeasurably broadened in the bargain, I call that an excellent deal.
Not only is the "us" too narrowly defined, but so is the intelligence that my opponents claim is being sucked out of us by the evil internet. Sure, I'd admire anyone with the pure power of concentration to allow him or her to digest at one sitting several hundreds of pages of Kant's The Critique of Pure Reason. But is that the only type of intelligence worthy of the name?
You see, we're being asked to lament the decline of what is in fact a too-narrowly defined idea of intelligence. Should we prize the ability to concentrate and to read deeply? Absolutely. Should we privilege that type of intelligence over other types? I can't see why we should.
We need to ask ourselves, what are the appropriate types of intelligence that we should be cultivating for the age that we live in? I'm not necessarily talking about Howard Gardner's theory of nine types of intelligence—spatial, mathematical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic or what have you. I'm talking about the cognitive skill sets that are appropriate for now and the future—this world of an embarrassment of information riches.
Those cognitive abilities would include the ability to rapidly assimilate and contextualize new information. It would also include the ability to perform a kind of information triage: to discern what's useful and what isn't almost at a glance. And they may include the ability to simply block out distraction when needed—something perhaps many of us can do less well now only because the distraction is still rather new to us.
It's one thing for middle-aged guys like us to talk about the internet making us stupid, but remember that we're all digital immigrants. Look to the digital natives and you'll see these new cognitive skills at work. I was fortunate enough to have a brilliant 20-year-old Stanford student intern for me at Baidu this summer. He was so at home with information abundance, so fast and efficient that he reminded me painfully that I was born in a different land and a different era.
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