Since the advent of the Internet, its use and influence on people has expanded at an exponential rate. Like any emerging technology, the Internet has its detractors, who claim that it is having detrimental effects on the way people think. Though the arguments of detractors are serious, it is just as important if not more so to examine the ways that the Internet has a positive impact on the way people think. A positive look at how the Internet has changed the way people think requires considering historical arguments about technology’s effects, examining definitions of intelligence, the availability of information, how the brain is exercised and strengthened, and people’s ability to adapt.
Technologies and innovations have had pessimistic critics since ancient times. For example, “In Plato’s dialogue “Phaedrus,” the philosopher Socrates complains that the written word and books are hampering memory. Instead of remembering things for themselves, people had begun trusting written characters” (Greenblatt 781). In hindsight, there is a lot of value to the written or printed word; for example, scientific experiments can be written down and published for review by community peers who can amplify their own research with the information. A newspaper can inform hundreds of thousands of people about what is going on in local communities and the world. Author Neil Postman stated that Socrates made an error by believing that writing would cause society nothing but problems, instead of trying to imagine the benefits, which today we realize are great (Greenblatt 781).
Similar errors are being made about the Internet. Critics argue that it has depleted the attention span of users. This may be true in some cases, but Wired blogger Jonah Lehrer believes the Internet fosters the ability to pay attention to multiple things; he says, “The Internet is just like a city . . . It’s a trade-off, but in the end we’re willing to make the trade-off because it allows all sorts of new connections” (Greenblatt 780). Since it is no longer a necessity to remember friends’ phone numbers, find ways to carry around a lot of books or papers, wait weeks to hear from a military family member stationed overseas, and so forth, the possibility arises that people can spend their time thinking and doing things that are more valuable. As to whether or not the Internet always depletes attention spans, Tim’OReilly, the president of a media company, believes this is not the case. It is a different type of concentration or focus than a student uses while paging through a chemistry textbook. He says, “When I look at an 8-year-old playing these complex video games . . . I’m not sure what’s going on there, but it’s sure not a lack of attention span. They’re completely focused with all these multiple inputs” (Greenblatt 779).
Redefining intelligence is important in understanding how the Internet effects the way people think. In the past, people such as Plato saw the greatest value and measure of intelligence in a person’s ability to memorize words and facts. In hindsight, it is easy to see that the ability to remember facts is still a valid measure of intelligence, but it is not the only one. A highly valued thinking skill like reading comprehension, unheard of in Plato’s time, is a positive effect of the technology of the written and printed word. Similarly, new valuable thinking skills arise from the Internet. The Pew Internet & American Life Project asked people about how they thought the Internet affected people’s thinking, and two important factors that they responded were that people were freed from rote tasks like memorization and that the Internet allowed hive-brain type thinking in which people could solve difficult problems together (Greenblatt 777). While all of the benefits to human intelligence from the Internet are not yet evident, these two examples demonstrate that new ways of thinking are evolving to adapt to the new medium.
An unquestionable advantage to the Internet is the availability of a vast amount of information to millions of people. Professor Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, says the Internet is positive because it gives access to much information that a poorly stocked high-school library cannot offer (Greenblatt 777). With virtually everyone having more access to more information, this brings the possibility of leveling the intellectual playing field because, for example, a high school student in a poor community can have access to the same materials that a high school student in a wealthier community. People have the ability to compile information quickly in easily with the Internet, whereas it would have taken weeks or years in the past to obtain the same information (Greenblatt 777). Critics argue that unless a site turns up on the first page of Google it will be ignored or that people will “cherry pick” their facts to only use information that appeals to them. While these are dangers, as professors Cathleen A. Norris and Elliot Soloway write, “we adults must provide instruction and guidance to help children make the best use of this truly unique opportunity” (Greenblatt 789). Additionally, online education is making higher education available to more people all over the world. It is much more important that the information brought by the Internet is available to all, because overall this widens the view of the world and the way people thinking about information.
The Internet is affecting the way people exercise and strengthen the brain. While critics throughout history have made the claim that new technologies, including the internet, will rot the brain, others see it differently. Wired blogger Lehrer says, “Video games turn out to be amazing for the brain . . . They’re like doing pushups for the brain” (Greenblatt 778). Puzzle and word games can increase spatial-relations or vocabulary skills. First-person shooter games can increase eye-hand coordination as well as other visual skills. Multi-player online games can increase visual and strategic skills. Role-playing games involve reading skills, puzzle solving, eye-hand coordination, and strategy. With these advantages, it is easy to see how a moderate engagement with video games can positively affect the intellect.
The warnings of critics about the Internet and its effects on thinking include everything from lowered attention span to Internet addiction; however, people are very adaptive overall to the new technologies that become important in their lives. While no one can truly predict the direction Internet technology will take, “Over the next five to 10 years, technology experts seem to believe . . . that people will learn how to adapt to information overload by going offline more” (Greenblatt 791). History has shown that Plato was incorrect in his assumptions about the dire effects of writing; in fact, “bookworm” is a term used to describe an intellectual person who enjoys reading. Terms like “geek” are much less pejorative than they used to be because people have learned to respect those who are knowledgeable and adept with the latest technologies, including the Internet.
People are often afraid of things that are new and unfamiliar to them, and the same is true of the Internet’s place in society. Writer Nicholas Carr says, “You cannot stop the technology train . . . It’s way out of the station, coming down the tracks. You have to adapt” (Greenblatt 778). History has demonstrated repeatedly that humanity adapts well to new technology, evolves its intelligence to new technology, and improves with the availability of more information. The Internet, like preceding technologies such as the printing press, offers an unprecedented opportunity for people to improve the way they think.
Greenblatt, Alan. “Impact of the Internet on Thinking.” CQ Researcher 20.33 (24 Sept. 2010): 773-796.