Internet Makes Us Smarter & Dumber

Future humans will be both multitaskers and screen-bound hermits. Is this a good thing?

THE GIST

Scientists agree our brains are being rewired.

The Internet as an "external brain" where facts are stored frees up space for mental processes.

The ability to cooperate to crowd-source problems will be important for the future.

Will constant access to the Internet make today's young people brilliant multitaskers or shallow, screen-bound hermits? A new opinion poll finds that technology experts believe the answer is "all of the above."

According to a new survey of 1,021 technology experts and critics, hyperconnectivity is a mixed bag. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed agreed that the Internet has wired the under-35 crowd differently, and that this rewiring is a good thing, stimulating multitasking talent and an ability to find relevant information fast online. But 42 percent of experts believe that the hyperconnected brain is shallow, with an unhealthy dependence on the Internet and mobile devices.

"Short attention spans resulting from quick interactions will be detrimental to focusing on the harder problems, and we will probably see a stagnation in many areas: technology, even social venues such as literature," Alvaro Retana, a technologist at HP, responded in the survey. "The people who will strive and lead the charge will be the ones able to disconnect themselves to focus."

Dire predictions

According to the Elon University Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Internet Project, which conducted the survey, the technology expert split is closer to 50-50 on whether the rise of the Internet is a boon or a bane. Many people who responded that Internet-savvy Generation Y is at a mental advantage tempered that opinion with warnings about the dark side of connectedness. [10 Facts About the Teen Brain]

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"While they said access to people and information is intensely improved in the mobile Internet age, they added that they are already witnessing deficiencies in younger people's abilities to focus their attention, be patient and think deeply," Janna Anderson, director of Elon's Imagining the Internet Center and a co-author of the report detailing the findings, said in a statement. "Some expressed concerns that trends are leading to a future in which most people are shallow consumers of information, and several mentioned Orwell's '1984.'"

George Orwell's 1949 book described a dystopian society where information was strictly controlled. One respondent who mentioned the book was Paul Gardner-Stephen, a telecommunications fellow at Flinders University.

"entralized powers that can control access to the Internet will be able to significantly control future generations," Gardner-Stephen wrote. "It will be much as in Orwell's '1984', where control was achieved by using language to shape and limit thought, so future regimes may use control of access to the Internet to shape and limit thought."

Online optimism

Many experts praised the talents needed to navigate the Internet, however, and suggested that people who have grown up connected will blossom.

"There is no doubt that brains are being rewired," wrote danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. "The techniques and mechanisms to engage in rapid-fire attention shifting will be extremely useful for the creative class."

Other experts said that the use of the Internet as an "external brain" where facts are stored frees up space for mental processes beyond memorization. [Best Social Networking Sites Online]

"The replacement of memorization by analysis will be the biggest boon to society since the coming of mass literacy in the late 19th to early 20th century," wrote Paul Jones, a new media expert at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

While there was disagreement about the benefits and costs of an increasingly important Internet, experts were agreed that certain skills and talents would be important for future generations online. Among those were the ability to cooperate to solve problems, also known as crowd-sourcing; the ability to effectively search for information; the ability to synthesize information from many sources; the ability to concentrate; and the ability to filter useful information from the digital "noise" of the Internet.

"There is a palpable concern among these experts that new social and economic divisions will emerge as those who are motivated and well-schooled reap rewards that are not matched by those who fail to master new media and tech literacies," said report co-author Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. "They called for reinvention of public education to teach those skills and help learners avoid some of the obvious pitfalls of a hyperconnected lifestyle."

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