13 Ways the Internet is Making Us Smarter

Image of a man with a "networked" brain

David Weinberger published a piece on Huffington Post a few days ago about 13 Ways the Internet is Making Us Smarter.

The entire article is worth a read, but here are a few points I found particularly thought-provoking:

Linearity of the Book Limits the Reader (But Empowers the Author?)

“Books have favored long-form, sequential chains of thought that lead readers to the author’s conclusion. That’s one useful way of thinking, but it reflects the limitations of paper. The author has to try to keep us on the bus rather than letting us explore more widely because paper knowledge is hard to traverse. The author has to anticipate objections, rather than entering into real-time conversation with readers, because paper knowledge is only made public once it’s done. And it has given us the overly-simplistic idea that a world as complex and chaotic as ours ultimately reduces to long, knowable sequences of logic.”

I’ve thought for a long time now that the hyperlinked and “webbed” nature of the internet is a much closer model to the way we think than the linear form of the book. We think in a messy, jumbled fashion that’s characterized by random connections and associations.

But while the internet itself more closely resembles the way we think, is it the best way to formulate a strong argument to present to others? Maybe it’s the technical writer coming out in me, but I really value a clear, concise, linear argument–one that lets me know exactly what the author is trying to make me understand or see.

A sentence may be made up of a string of independent words. But those words only make sense if you string them in a particular order. If you change the order, you change the meaning (or worse–lose ALL meaning).

Network of Experts and Learners

“Increasingly businesses are realizing that there is more truth and value in being plugged into a network of experts who disagree than in relying upon one single big-brained person who is paid to deliver The Truth in a fat, expensive report.”

It’s certainly not just corporate and business organizations. I mentioned briefly in another post titled “Social Academia and Collective Knowledge” that a lot of online learning is taking place this way. But, don’t we all kind of adhere to this idea anyway? Seeing the value of multiple sources is nothing new. The internet just provides an easier way to build this information network and access the material.

In her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy Baym discusses how the digital age has served to facilitate our already-present desire to be connected to others. I think most people view social networking as only Facebook, Twitter, Google+, personal blogging–more informal media. While these may be the more mainstream social media platforms (the spaces people are maintaining their personal life connections) there are huge networks of people whose only commonalities are their professional or academic interests.

Open Access to Academic Publications

“The Open Access movement is making great strides, providing free access to peer-reviewed online journals and to repositories of works and data.”

What does this mean for the publishing industry? Many people have argued that the book is dying, and the publication system is broken… but how will the Open Access movement sustain itself? What changes will have to be made to the system in order for it to work? Or is change not enough? Do we just need an entirely new system?

Intellectual Property and Shared Knowledge 

“Quite possibly the fastest-learning profession these days is software engineering. Have a highly specific question about why your code isn’t working or how you can do something that your programming language seems not to support? Search engines will bring you immediately to sites where questions are answered and code is shared. Need a tutorial or an advanced course? No problem.

The Web’s ethos of sharing is making a foolish insistence on the overly-rigid protection of “intellectual property” look like the result of some mix of greed, selfishness, and fear”

Someday we’ll all learn the way software developers do.

I wonder who this “we” refers to when Weinberger says, “Someday we’ll all learn…” Does this apply to all disciplines? We put such a premium on ownership and authorship (and I can’t say that I completely disagree with that either–we all want to be recognized for our work) that I wonder how this counter-culture of sharing developed. Why is it so different for software developers? Ironically, it seems like the ones who are sharing are the ones whose businesses are thriving–which would seem counter intuitive.

…But is the Internet Also Making Us Dumber?

 [The internet] may be hurting our ability to focus and form long-term memories.

In this article, Weinberger did site a few problems he saw with the internet, as well. This is one of them.

Yeah I’ve often wondered about my horrifying lack of ability to remember simple things (like my parent’s phone number). I sometimes wonder if I rely too heavily on my technology to keep up with things for me.

The Internet Models the Ways Our Mind Works

“The old media, even with the best of intentions, could only show us a tiny bit of the world, so it became expert at showing us what it thought we would find interesting.

The Web, on the other hand, is a genuine expression of our interests. We built it by linking, one hyperlink at a time, to what actually matters to us. For better and for worse.”

This point loops back to the very first quote I listed at the beginning of this post. It makes perfect sense to me why the Internet is so engaging for users. It follows a model of how our minds work… We make links and connections to different concepts and ideas (and a lot of times, those connections only make sense to us, individually).

The internet, in a way, lets us “indulge” those random thought patterns–which is how we can start off by reading a Week in Review blog post from The Chonricle’s Prof.Hacker blog and wind up, an hour later, watching two Croatian cellists rocking out to Welcome to the Jungle on YouTube.

Image Source: Is the Internet Making Us Smarter or Stupider? (Fooyoh Entertainment Network)


3 thoughts on “13 Ways the Internet is Making Us Smarter

  1. About software and ownership. I think the coders’ willingness to share how things are done is perhaps a special cases of intellectual property because while the code is written, its what the code does that’s the real work, not really the code itself. Asking the Internet community for help with a piece of code might be analogous to asking for grammatical or syntactical help. Or thinking that if someone designed and built the carburetor, she owns the engine.

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