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Internet making our brains different, not dumb

Google won't make us "stupid," the Internet may make us more literate in a different kind of way and efforts to protect individual anonymity will be even more difficult to achieve, according to many of the experts surveyed for a look at "The Future of the Internet."

A decade from now, Google won't make us "stupid," the Internet may make us more literate in a different kind of way and efforts to protect individual anonymity will be even more difficult to achieve, according to many of the experts surveyed for a look at "The Future of the Internet" in 2020.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center asked nearly 895 technology "stakeholders and critics" about their expectations for the Internet 10 years from now. Among those queried: representatives from the Institute for the Future, Association of Internet Researchers, professors, Internet law and privacy experts, Internet pioneers and those in the business world.

One of the questions they were asked was whether Google, in some ways is a metaphor for the ease of information on the Internet, "will make people stupid" because of society's over-reliance on the search engine and the Web for everything from addresses to easily copied school reports to "Googling" prospective suitors or employees.

The notion was addressed in a 2008 story for The Atlantic titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" by author Nicholas Carr.

Carr wrote that "For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many."

But, he noted, his "mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Making 'better choices'
In the Pew study, 76 percent of the respondents said they agree that by 2020, "people’s use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid."

Another 21 percent disagreed, and said a decade from now, "people’s use of the Internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid."

Carr, also the author of the book, "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google," was among those surveyed for the report, and said he stands by what he wrote. "But I would add that the Net's effect on our intellectual lives will not be measured simply by average IQ scores," he said in the Pew report.

"What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking.”

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said just as in society at large, "a lot of the people in this expert group do feel some level of stress by the volume of the information that’s flowing into their lives, and the ways in which they skim over material as they are browsing."

Yet, he said, "when they think 10 years from now, are we going to be collectively smarter or not, the answer is pretty overwhelmingly that they do think so, that perhaps individuals will lose their way, but that as a society, we’ll get smarter collectively.

"We measure intelligence in a certain way now, and maybe the whole nature of intelligence will be changing 10 years from now," he said. "It won’t necessarily be how much you can retain, how much your hard drive can hold in your head, but it’ll be the way you can assess information, that you can think critically, that you can synthesize information."

Sandra Kelly, 3M Corp.'s market research manager and a participant in the study, said she doesn't think "an adult's IQ can be influenced much either way by reading anything, and I would guess that smart people will use the Internet for smart things and stupid people will use it for stupid things in the same way that smart people read literature and stupid people read crap fiction.

"On the whole, having easy access to more information will make society as a group smarter though.”

Enhance reading, writing, knowledge?
When asked whether by 2020 it will be clear that the Internet enhances and improves, or diminishes and endangers reading, writing, and "the intelligent rendering of knowledge," 65 percent said the Internet will foster such improvements; 32 percent disagreed, and 3 percent did not respond.

“I think that a marginally greater number of people will be engaged in creating media — visual as well as text — and as a result, the overall literacy will increase," said Alex Halavais, vice president of the Association of Internet Researchers, said in the report.

Halavais, in an e-mail interview, said "I'm at the Digital Media and Learning conference this week, where no one would suggest the Internet and search engines are making kids less smart. It does create new issues of literacy, in the same way that the printing press created new capacities and standards of literacy.

"The media ecology is shifting, and what makes us literate is shifting with it. The most literate in the search society are not those who hold the most information in their head, but those who can find information and learn new things the quickest."

Sharing more — and less
"Ten years from now, it’s likely people are going to be sharing more information, but there’ll probably be more levels of control over it," said Anthony Townsend, a study participant and research director for the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future, in an interview with

"You can already see this happening, he said. "Young people are very sophisticated about what they make public and what they keep private, and how they create different tiers of friends. One of the things Facebook has done is completely render the word ‘friend’ meaningless, because there’s now many different kinds of friends.

"You’re going to see, I think, technologies that let people say what kind of friend you are, or manage it that way without necessarily telling you that."

David Clark, senior research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said in the report that 10 years from now, "we may lose our ability to write, in the literal sense that students are no longer taught penmanship. We will either type or print like 8-year-olds.

"But I think even e-mail stimulates the putting of ideas into writing. And while we may read only on electronic media, I think the book and the scholarly work will survive as important means both of transferring knowledge and of entertainment."

'Literary culture is in trouble'
But Patrick Tucker, senior editor of The Futurist magazine, said in the report that "Literary culture is in trouble … We are spending less time reading books, but the amount of pure information that we produce as a civilization continues to expand exponentially. That these trends are linked, that the rise of the latter is causing the decline of the former, is not impossible.

"One could draw reassurance from today’s vibrant Web culture if the general surfing public, which is becoming more at home in this new medium, displayed a growing propensity for literate, critical thought," he said. "But take a careful look at the many blogs, post comments, Facebook pages, and online conversations that characterize today’s Web 2.0 environment," he wrote.

"This type of content generation, this method of 'writing' is not only subliterate, it may actually undermine the literary impulse …. Hours spent texting and e-mailing, according to this view, do not translate into improved writing or reading skills.”

Anonymity and privacy issues
The "Future of the Internet" report is the fourth since 2005 from Pew and Elon University. Some themes — such as "the right balance between anonymity and privacy on the one hand, and disclosure and sharing on the other hand" have been recurring ones over the years, said Rainie.

In the new report, 55 percent said they believe Internet users will still be able to communicate anonymously in 2020, while 41 percent said a decade from now that “anonymous online activity is sharply curtailed.” (Three percent did not respond to the question.)

"The environment in the social media world has changed some of the nature of that debate," said Rainie. "But the basic sense that there is a struggle over what’s the balance point to strike on that absolutely continues."

Stewart A. Baker, Internet legal specialist formerly with the Department of Homeland Security, said in the report that anonymity online "will gradually become a lot like anonymity in the real world. When we encounter it, we'll take a firm grip on our wallet and leave the neighborhood as soon as possible — unless we're doing something we're ashamed of.”

In an interview, Baker said 10 years from now, just as today, there "may still be pockets of anonymity; it is after all the norm today, and anonymity is something that we all value for ourselves — just not for others."

It "will evolve into a kind of caveat emptor space," he said. "You'll know you're taking risks when you go there, but you'll value the anonymity enough to live with the risks."

Townsend, of the Institute for the Future, said "If you look at the last 15 years of the Web and the Internet, it’s been a pretty straight line of governments imposing their sovereignty on cyberspace.

"The whole notion of anonymity on the Internet is one of these vestigial principles or kind of obsolete assumptions about how the Internet actually works ... It’s a pretty trivial exercise today for a government to identify the data or activities of any individual online relatively quickly, unless they take really extreme measures to protect themselves."