Blog: Pavan Muzumdar

Post 2: Does the Internet Make You Smarter or Dumber?

A couple of weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal there was a spirited debate about the impact of the Internet on human learning, education, and smarts.  On the one hand, Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows, says that the constant distraction, emailing, tweeting, facebooking, googling, and browsing in general is taking away depth of thought from our activities.  We are becoming superficial reactive entities incapable of insightful, comprehensive, and comprehending thought, he claims.

Clay Shirky, the author of Cognitive Surplus:… on the other hand says all this thought is rubbish.  The access, he says, to all this information can only make us smarter.  Sure, the ability to belt out a blog quickly and post it on the Internet leads to increasing amounts of mediocrity, but that doesn't mean that there aren't also more works of higher quality and more insight simply because of the access to ever-increasing information.

I tend to agree… with both of them.

Not long ago I found myself becoming a point and click junkie without paying deep attention to any one particular thing.  The constant emails coming in and my relentless pursuit of keeping a clean inbox meant that I kept going back to it, switching between tasks and not really getting anything done. Then one day I stumbled upon a change that has made my life a lot easier.

During a switchover to a new laptop, I also decided to change email programs.  It so happened that because of some network configuration quirk, every time this program checked for new mail every five minutes or so, the way I had initially set it up, my computer would lock up and I wouldn't be able to do anything.  This drove me nuts enough to set up the program to stop automatically downloading email.  What happened next was interesting.

Not only did the lock-ups stop because I was controlling when email was being downloaded, but I noticed that I was focusing more on work that I was doing and getting things done more and generally feeling less distracted.  I figured out what the problem was with the lock-ups, but I left the mail download setting the same way.  Now I check my email when I am ready and not when the computer wants to give it to me!

But on the other hand I find myself a lot smarter because of the immediate access to information that the 'Net gives me.  The other day, I was talking to a student who had an idea for a product that he was thinking of.  It was an add-on accessory for the iPhone.  He had obviously given it some thought and it seemed like a useful product.  

A quick Google search revealed that not only was this product available for purchase, but there were a couple of manufacturers making it.  We were not only able to validate that he had a good idea, but at what price point it could be sold.  Of course it probably didn't make sense to try to make it 'til he had the checked out the competition.  A little bit of a disappointment, but also what a confidence booster!  More importantly, we found this out in a matter of seconds.  A few years ago, this could have been an expensive marketing study.  

Next:  Human triumph and the cross pollination of ideas…