This has to be my favorite entry into the ongoing debate about whether the Internet and all things digital make us smarter or if they reduce our capacity for deeper thinking. It’s from one of my favorite thinkers and writers, Steven Pinker, who is a psychology professor at Harvard.
From his op-ed in the New York Times, Mind Over Mass Media: “Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.
“And to encourage intellectual depth, donâ€™t rail at PowerPoint or Google. Itâ€™s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.”
In a related article here, Jonah Lehrer, another young thinker whose books I’ve enjoyed very much, writes a review of Clay Shirky’s latest book titled Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (see previous post). An advocate for what the Internet has to offer, Shirkey might perhaps take his argument a bit too far for Lehrer’s tastes. In particular, Lehrer wonders where casual use of the Internet fits into our lives today:
“The second thing is that it remains entirely unclear if the creative and generous acts made possible by the internet are really a replacement for time spent watching sitcoms. After all, people have always had hobbies; although they watched plenty of bad television, they also read newspapers and built model airplanes, went on hikes and volunteered at the local shelter. In other words, we weren’t quite as mindless or disconnected as Shirky seems to believe. In his zeal to celebrate the revolutionary capabilities of the internet, Shirky downplays the virtues of the world before the web. And then there is the terrifying possibility (not addressed by Shirky) that our online life is detracting, not from time spent watching TV, but from our interest in things that have nothing to do with technology, such as talking with friends or taking walks in the park.”