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New Pew Report Disputes Claims that Web Makes us Dumber

UPDATE - A panel targeted at video filmmakers wanting to learn more about fair use is in contension for next year's Digital Capital week. Please vote for this panel here. Thank you!

On July 9th, New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested:

The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students…Perhaps this will change. Already, more ‘old-fashioned’ outposts are opening up across the Web. It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning

Brooks perpetuates a false dichotomy, one that can be whittled down to internet users vs. deep thinkers. But many experts on the subject reject this mutual exclusivity.

As a part of DC’s Digital Capital week, Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life Project (PIALP) spoke about the future impact of the internet on American life and culture. He detailed the findings of PIALP’s most recent Imagining the Internet survey, which seeks qualitative and quantitative responses from both experts and non-experts on the networked future.

Among the predictions of the survey, Rainie said, is that a new “R” will be added to the traditional “3R’s” (reading, wRiting and aRithmetic). The new R standing for Retrieval—what he described as “extreme Googling." But what might the consequences of such a new skillset be?

Prompted by a July/August 2008 article (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) in The Atlantic, PIALP researches asked respondents whether or not they thought, by the year 2020, internet use will enhance human intelligence. Their answers suggested that this will depend on both how much (and what kind) of information users consume and how much they produce.

Institute for the Future director Anthony Townsend comments:

Expressing ideas in the future will just as likely involve creating a simulation as writing an expository essay. Whether that will make our renderings of knowledge less intelligent is unclear, but I think it’s likely that there are tremendous opportunities to enhance it. For example, would it be more intelligent to render our knowledge of politics in Ancient Egypt as a book-length essay or a realistic, interactive role playing simulation?

The Center for Social Media’s research, specifically within the Future of Public Media project, suggests that people are increasingly turning to digital and participatory media when they seek to address complex shared issues. The Pew report offers various perspectives on how the internet might affect users’ ability to think critically, seek relevant information and deliberate upon it.

All told, 81 percent of the experts responding (and 76 percent of the entire sample) think human intelligence will increase as a result of internet use. We tend to agree.