Internet Distractions

PaperOrganizational Learning

ADHD - attention deficit, oh look! A butterfly! In his June 5th, 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet is making us dumber. While I do not necessarily believe that "dumber" is the correct adjective in this case, I can agree with parts of Nicholas' argument. Overall, however, I do not feel that the Internet is decreasing human intellect (which is basically what Carr argues), but rather only decreasing the capabilities of human comprehension.

Hundreds of years ago, humans were required to memorize vast quantities of information. This is why stories and legends were often converted to rhymes or rhythms so they could be easily remembered. With the advent of written communication, the necessity to store superfluous volumes of information became obsolete. At the time, Carr would probably argue that written communication was making us dumber - and he would still have a valid point. But is it necessarily a bad thing? Over time, humans have evolutionarily forfeited the rights to recall mounds of information in favor of the Arts and Sciences. Had we never developed written communication, we would not be nearly the advanced civilization we are today. We lost the ability to remember, but we gained the ability to communicate information en-mass, correctly, completely, and efficiently in compensation.

The Internet is the written communication of today. I do not disagree that the Internet is very distracting. And I do not disagree that the Internet negatively impacts learning; in fact, my senior research thesis supported that evidence, statistically proving that students between the ages of 12 and 14 retain up to 40% more information than their peers who had been educated on the same material via a technological device. At first sight, and as Carr clearly states, this appears like a horrible side effect of the Internet. But again, is it really a bad thing? Take a moment to step outside of the narrow-minded-view and look at a broader picture.

Do we really need to memorize thousands of multiplication facts to pass 3rd grade? We have calculators for that. Do we really need to know what happened on every date for every important person who ever did something? We have Google and online history journals for that. Do we really need to fully consume everything we read at first read? It's accessible to us (most likely digitally), so we can just refresh it later. I could continue to cite more examples, but I think you get the picture - the Internet is changing us, and it very well be making us dumber, but is it necessarily a bad thing?

In conclusion, Carr argues that the Internet is making us dumber, and I agree with his views and metrics. However, I fail to see his reasoning as to why this is a problem. Over time, the human race has evolved to better adapt to our environment. We sacrificed the ability to remember for the ability to write. Carr is arguing that we are sacrificing the ability to retain for the ability access mass volumes of information. I ask again, is this a bad thing? Overall, I think that Carr, like most human beings, is just scared of change. He's afraid that things will be different; he's afraid that the patterns of human thought will change. Instead of fear, we should be embracing those patterns, and determining ways to capitalize on the new-found human learning process.

Seth Vargo is a Developer Advocate at Google. Previously he worked at HashiCorp, Chef Software, CustomInk, and a few Pittsburgh-based startups. He is the author of Learning Chef and is passionate about reducing inequality in technology. When he is not writing, working on open source, teaching, or speaking at conferences, Seth enjoys spending time with his friends and advising non-profits.