An entertaining, engaging and at times erudite debate on the topic last night, courtesy of Intelligence Squared and featuring Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Kaiser Kuo of Baidu (against the motion) along with Jeremy O’Grady from The Week and Tom Crampton from Oligivy PR (for the motion).
It included a heartfelt plea from Tom – a recovering journalist – about how the digital era had undercut the business model that sustained quality journalism, the observation that much of what’s online is designed to capture your attention and hence distract you from focused thought, but also the argument that despite all that we manage to consume much more complex information and entertainment than we used to – think “Lost” vs. “I Love Lucy.”
No one “won,” of course: Although Jeremy and Tom managed to sway more than 60 members of the audience to their side over the course of the evening, they still wound up with fewer votes than Jimmy and Kaiser.
This is ground Nicholas Carr went over in his book, “The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains” – an argument that online activity is making us skim over content rather than truly delving into and understanding any subject in depth. The New York Times review of it skewers his arguments – albeit politely – but there are any number of people who subscribe to his view of this new world. (As an aside, he wrote an excellent piece, “The Great Unbundling,” on the economics of media in the digital age in 2008. It’s well worth reading.)
So is the Internet making us stupid (or stupider)? In many ways, it’s not really that useful a question. The Internet is making us something – but what? Our brains are changing, that’s clear. When language came along, our brains evolved. When books were invented, we turned parts of our brains devoted to memorizing facts into other purposes. When computers hit the scene, we changed again. And here we are once more. On the brink of – or in the middle of – yet another major evolution of our minds.
Change isn’t necessarily good (although I can make a very good case for the overall benefits of the digital age). But what’s more important than obsessing about the fact that our world is changing – or trying to hold back the tide – is trying to dissect and understand the change, and adapting to it, taking advantage of what’s good and trying to minimize the impact of the bad. We shouldn’t try to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them.
Adjusting is always difficult. Even in the Middle Ages: