25 years ago, the world wide web was opened to the public. There was no fanfare in the global press. In fact, most people didn’t even know what the Internet was. Flash forward to 2016, and it powers everything from political revolutions to dank memes. Today half of humanity is already connected to the internet, with the entirety of the world expected to be online by 2020. That’s just 4 years from now. In addition, since 2007 the rise of the smartphone age gave the internet mobility, engraining the digital space into our day to day lives like never before. It has redefined the way eat (Grubhub), the way we move (Uber), the way we communicate (Facebook), the way we date (Tinder) and also the way we think – which automatically gets a lot of people worried.
Because the land of the internet is fervorous with distraction, particularly smartphone devices, many scientists believe that prolonged use of said technology stops users from retaining knowledge in their long term memory, one of the fundamental building blocks of intelligence. Recent research also suggests that social media, for example, is actively reshaping the structure of the human brain, privileging left-brain functions to the ones of the right hemisphere, responsible for tasks associated with deep thought and emotion. To top it all off, many believe that the internet is primarily a platform of misinformation and ignorance. With all things considered, does the internet makes us more capable as human beings or more illiterate than ever before?
The truth of the matter is far from simple. The human brain is highly plastic – it adapts to cultural phenomena as well as anything else we’re exposed to. So it is of no surprise that prolonged exposure to a new way of consuming information will change the wiring and even the size of certain areas of the brain. Ultimately the brain shapes the media, the media shapes the brain. It’s important for us to establish that the question of whether a particular form of media makes us either dumb or smart is an oversimplification and always will be. Intelligence is defined by an array of measures, including one’s capacity for logic, abstract thought, understanding, self-awareness, communication, learning, emotional knowledge, memory, planning, creativity and problem solving. Modern media can affect some of these aspects negatively and others positively, creating a scenario in which we’re getting both “dumber” in some areas and “ smarter” in others – which is where we find ourselves today. Every form of media develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others, and those changes reverberate in our day-to-day lives both with and away from the screens that surround us.
The assessment of whether that change is negative or positive, however, is in many ways a subjective assumption – there is no simple answer; the only guarantee is that anywhere media is consumed, a change in our way of thinking is imminent. And you can bet that the way we think is changing today faster than ever.
Not only do we have an increasingly prolonged exposure to digital media, it is also the most densely packed type of media to ever exist, as far as brain stimulation and activity is concerned. Not only are we surrounded by constant alerts, updates, and shifts in attention, we are also getting increasingly immersed in the media we consume, as it is the case with videogames and the up and coming virtual reality field. Highly immersive, highly interactive, an even more potent contributor to the shape-shifting properties of the brain.
So what does that change look like? Research has shown that certain cognitive skills are in fact strengthened by our interactions with digital media. These tend to involve more primitive mental functions, such as hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and the processing of visual cues. One of the most famous studies related to video games, published in Nature in 2003, revealed that after just 10 days of playing action games on computers, a group of young people had significantly boosted the speed with which they could shift their visual focus between various images and tasks. It’s likely that internet usage also strengthens brain functions related to fast-paced problem-solving, particularly when it requires spotting patterns in a welter of data.
With that in mind, it can be said that digital media is leading to widespread sophistication of visual-spatial skills, which could also be a contributing factor to this generation’s average IQ, the highest recorded in history. But with that gain, there is also a significant trade off – plenty of studies have shown that those developments also reduce our capacity for the kind of “deep thinking” usually associated with analysis, reflection, critical thinking and the retention of information, all essential for the creation of human knowledge. Author Nicholas Carr describes this as “a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: We are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest. In the process, we seem fated to sacrifice much of what makes our minds so interesting.”
But stepping out of the intelligence debate for a moment – are we more more informed because of digital media? In this case, all data points to “yes.” Never in the history of humankind has knowledge been this easy to create, access, and share in real time. And while there is certainly a considerable amount of misinformation permeating the web, the benefits crush the negatives numerically. Wikipedia and its 35 million articles are a living, breathing example of this – while you can easily tamper with pages to misinform users, it is only a matter of time before your changes are undone. Some will be briefly misinformed, but the staggering majority of users will more often get access to correct information.
Which is not to say that misinformation on the internet is not a problem – it certainly is, especially in social media outlets, where the popularity of a link is its only measure of validity. But it is essential to avoid inflating the negatives to the point of obscuring the overwhelmingly positive aspects of digital media and user information. On an added note, remember that social media, as well as the internet itself, are both very new technologies that will continue to evolve to address issues such as this, as they have since their initial conception (the same applying to the current formation of “bubbles” in social media platforms, where users are able to select what they want, phasing out the ideas they disagree with, further contributing to the hyperpolarization of social media. These troublesome trends are giving way to the creation of many new innovative products that aim to solve these issues as a response).
Contemporary humans are also better at making decisions now than compared to any other point in history. The information available to us is more objective and refined in the grand scheme of things, allowing for more informed decision-making. The tools that we use to aid us are also getting significantly smarter too – compare the ease of getting a hot date on Tinder compared to using newspaper ads in the 50’s.
Digital media has also increased general awareness on a number of global issues, connecting users from all corners of the world in collaborative, albeit many times heated, debates, while also proving itself to be a tremendous tool for empowering minorities and spreading empathy. Millions of people are thinking and discussing about a multitude of subjects they would never acknowledge otherwise on a daily basis, expressing their arguments, deconstructing others and shifting their views.
But does any of this count if our physiological ability to have deep thoughts is hindered? Are we really doomed to be just “hunters and gatherers” of data in an ever increasing digital world?
Correlating the rise of digital media with the death of intellectualism is, in many ways, an extreme assumption. The main issue with this idea is that it assumes that before the existence of TV sets and Facebook the entirety of the earth consisted of “deep intellectual thinkers”, which was no more the case then than it is now. “Deep thinkers” were always a minority within the general population, but the rise of digital media concerns the entire globe. The reality is that most individuals would never pursue this kind of thinking to begin with, but amidst all the cat videos, the omnipresence of the internet still exposes the masses daily to educative, relevant and sometimes even essential information about the world around them that they would never have access to otherwise.
It is not that we have simply become “ shallow” because of our mediums of choice – the internet isn’t a highly addictive drug that strips away our ability to perform decisions. In fact, I would argue that it expands them. Digital media concerns more than Facebook and Netflix Sitcoms – it includes every kind of knowledge humans have created: e-books, educational videos, startups, communities, and much more, all of which provide us with a multitude of ways to follow paths of clarity and knowledge. Despite the neurological game that may happen underneath, it is important to remember that it is not the only factor at play: digital media will continue to evolve to address these issues and in the meantime we still have control over the amount of good and bad it brings us. Simply put, “Deep thinkers” have more options than ever to pursue their reflections, and “common thinkers” are more empowered and informed than ever before.
Knowledge does not appear out of thin air – it is constructed with tools we have at our disposal. The internet is one of the greatest tools to grace the humanity, providing billions of people with quick access to an ever growing library of media containing all of human knowledge. While the question of whether we are getting individually smarter still warrants a subjective answer, I believe it is clear that we are getting collectively smarter. The end result is, despite its shortcomings, a global population that is more productive, interconnected and capable of making informed decisions, which is anything but a story of loss.