You’ve all heard the same tired arguments before; the declarations of doom; the luddites sounding their clarion call.
“The Internet is making us stupid!”
“We don’t remember anything anymore! Google ruins your memory!”
“We don’t read anymore! The Internet has stunted our attention spans!”
“There’s too much information on the Internet! I’m scared!”
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit… and yeah, bullshit.
The recent network outage from Singtel reminded many of us of the importance of the Internet in our everyday lives. It also brought to mind many myths floating around about our reliance on the Internet and its negative effects on our minds.
I’m here to tell you why they’re all bullshit.
A MENTAL PROSTHESIS
Author George Dyson famously posed a question that sums up the fears of many an Internet-naysayer.
“What if the cost of machines that think,” Dyson asks, “is people who don’t?”
A fair concern, I would say, but one that is not yet relevant to the Internet in its current state.
Yes, many websites use algorithms and data-mining to mimic actual intelligence, but the Internet is still far from actual “thinking”. All the Internet really does is provide us with almost all the information we could ever need. What we do with this information is still entirely up to us.
Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger very accurately described the role of the Internet as a “mental prosthesis”. Prostheses, by their very definition, are tools used to enhance and assist the performance of certain functions. Like a pair of spectacles to eyes or a walking stick to legs, the Internet helps our brains to make up for their natural limitations, and access information that would otherwise be completely inaccessible.
We might not be forced to memorize as much information now as we were before, but that doesn’t mean our ability to remember is ruined. We are simply given the option to offload and compartmentalize information that can be later accessed and recalled more easily and reliably, giving us more time to connect and think about said information on a deeper level.
Interesting to note, too, is that while all this pessimism about our ability to remember seems exclusive to the Internet age, it has actually existed for millennia. Socrates – yeah, that Socrates – once said, “[The written word] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls,” lampooning the very act of reading and writing. For all his fame, Socrates could be quite a myopic idiot sometimes.
BREADTH ABSENT DEPTH
A popular argument against Internet usage is that the Internet provides too much information, making it impossible for us to focus and really delve deep into a particular subject.
Sigh. Come on, Karl, we have to say it again:
Internet-based information is certainly no more distraction-laden that any old-fashioned method of gathering knowledge. Ask yourself, during which process to obtain information would one be more susceptible to distractions:
1. A 30-minute walk to the nearest library through cafés and shops and bubble tea stores and video game arcades OR
2. Typing a few words into Google’s search bar
Imagine if a friend of yours lived inside a massive library in which she could avail herself of any information she so desired at any point in time. Would you tell her, “Oh, there is no way you will ever learn anything in that place! There’s just too many books!” Of course not! That’s ridiculous! Yet people apply the same flawed criticism to the Internet, which is basically the digital equivalent of a humongous library.
There used to be an aura of romance and exclusivity surrounding knowledge, when obtaining it required months or years of digging through books and files and other sources. Today, the progress from wanting to know something to actually knowing something is almost instantaneous, separated by no more than the touch of a button. Is that a bad thing? No! It’s a wonderful thing.
The breadth of information on the net takes nothing away from its depth. Where deep learning used to be akin to diving into a well, we now dive into the Pacific Ocean. Isn’t that so much better?
READ A BOOK!
Yet another bullshit-worthy claim is that people read less books now because of the Internet. In actuality, the inverse might be true.
According to a 2012 study published in The Atlantic, the percentage of book readers in the American population has steadily and drastically increased over the past few decades. Weren’t expecting that, were you?
Plus, who are you to say that all those people staring at their smartphones on the train aren’t readers? Perhaps that guy is reading an e-book. Maybe that lady is browsing for book recommendations. Maybe that fellow prefers reading in the peace and quiet of his room, so he allots his time on noisy, crowded trains to less attention-demanding activities like playing Plants vs Zombies. *raises hand sheepishly*
NOT ALL DOOM AND GLOOM
Sure, there are people who use the Internet only for banal, vacuous activities like stalking social media, posting narcissistic compliment-fishing selfies, reading celebrity gossip, and sharing satirical articles without reading them, thinking they’re real. But are those people stupid because of the Internet? If the Internet didn’t exist, would those same people miraculously become geniuses? I’d have my money on NO.
Stupid people use the Internet for stupid things. Smart people use the Internet for building knowledge and gaining perspectives. Most of us with an IQ above that of a potato use it for both. Our activities on the Internet are not a cause of our intellect or lack thereof, they are merely a symptom.
The Internet doesn’t make us stupid. It simply gives us a powerful tool to pursue whatever information we desire, intellectual in nature or otherwise.
So, the next time someone tells you that the Internet makes people stupid, you can respond by breaking out the classic (you guessed it!)…