It seems scandalous to suggest that the internet is making us stupid. How can this be true? The internet is a cauldron of knowledge. With the right search engine, we could rapidly sift and pull out the relevant information regarding our search question or query. I use the internet everyday, and I admit I am hooked to it. One day without the internet is like a day for me without electricity.
At work, I use the internet to search for information. I pull out journal articles, read information from Google books, and if I cannot access the article, I only need to email the corresponding author. Sometimes, within a day, the author would reply my email and attached with the email is his or her paper that I had asked.
It has come to the point where I am hardly at the university library looking for journals or books. If there is a book at the library I need, I only need my research assistant to go get it for me at the library (after I searched the online library database for that book). This is in sharp contrast with my postgraduate days, where I would spend nearly everyday for a few hours at the library, sometimes just “window shopping” at the book shelves, looking for interesting book titles to pull out and read.
No doubt that the internet has changed not only our lives but in how we think. Nicholas Carr, in his newspaper article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, captured people’s attention about the possibility that the internet may have a double edged sword. Nicholas Carr later expanded his article into a book entitled, “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows”. I read this book with great interest because I share some of his worries about the internet.
The internet, Nicholas Carr warns, encourages shallow reading – the kind where we scan sentences rather than reading the words one-by-one. The latter, so called “deep reading”, forces us to think, consider, and evaluate more deeply than shallow reading.
In one job interview, I once asked a young aspiring lecturer what his hobbies were. I cannot remember what he said, but I remembered that he did not mentioned reading. I asked him why reading was not one of his hobbies considering the importance of reading to academicians. To that, he replied that reading has become old fashioned. The internet, he said, has replaced books.
And that is the crux of the problem with the internet. While the internet encourages rapid, current, and a multitude of information, the internet also encourages superficial, unfocused, and shallow reading. Stories written for the net must be in “bite-size”. Twitter and micro blogs have replaced blogs (such as this one) because conventional blogs contain too many words. Our attention span have become shorter, and we have become impatient with the slower process of internalization of information that we get from reading printed books.
Mark Bauerlein, in his book entitled, “The Dumbest Generation: How Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future”, is relentless in his attack on computers and the internet. Interestingly, he cites several scientific research that showed that the ubiquitous use of computers and the internet in classrooms have no significant effect on improving school grades.
So while the Malaysian government are encouraging more broadband penetration in the country and encouraging more students to own their own computers, research have shown that we should not be misguided into believing that this policy would make a significant impact on improving our students’ intelligence.
Mark Bauerlein cites scientific research that students who get better grades in schools are not those who are computer or internet savvy. Instead, students who do well in school are those who read books! These students who read books regularly develop deep reading skills, and they become better in understanding and interpreting more complex texts and ideas. In contrast, students who use the internet and computer regularly (and read less books) instead develop poor understanding of complex information.
Students in my university are shockingly poor in searching for information. Though Google is undeniably a very good search engine (and easy to use), university students are seemingly unable to enter the right keywords to search, and of the thousands of hits Google may return, students have difficulty in identifying the relevant information. In other words, university students may see all the pieces of information, but they are unable to identify the important pieces and are unable to “connect the dots” to see the overall picture.
We should not, Mark Bauerlein reminds us, be mistaken into assuming that students who are proficient in computer and internet are any good in learning and thinking.
Books by Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerlein summarizes what I see at universities here in Malaysia. Despite the ubiquitous computer and internet access, students read books even less than before. They have poor thinking skills and are poor in identifying important and relevant information. University students remain weak at reading complex texts. Consequently, there is a frustratingly some mental block when they try to understand, interpret, and appreciate complex concepts and ideas presented in the text.
Lastly, the internet has become a distraction to work and thinking. Nicholas Carr mentions this and other notable figures do likewise in the book, “Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?” (edited by John Brockman). My Masters student has recently told me about her difficulty in writing her thesis. While writing her thesis, she would “multi-task”: checking her Facebook, surfing the entertainment news, and so on. I suggested she remove her broadband connection whenever she writes.
So, I like to end this blog with an article from Leo Chulpa, one of the contributors in the book “Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?”:
“The Internet is the greatest detractor to serious thinking since the invention of television. It can devour time in all sorts of frivolous ways from chat rooms to video games. And what better way to interrupt one’s thought processes than by an intermittent stream of incoming email messages? Moreover, the Internet has made inter-personal communication much more circumscribed than in the pre-Internet era. What you write today may come back to haunt you tomorrow. The recent brouhaha following the revelations of the climate scientists’ emails is an excellent case in point.
So while the Internet provides a means for rapidly communicating with colleagues globally, the sophisticated user will rarely reveal true thoughts and feelings in such messages. Serious thinking requires honest and open communication and that is simply untenable on the Internet by those that value their professional reputation.
The one area where the Internet could be considered to be an aid to thinking is the rapid procurement of new information. But even here this is more illusionary than real. Yes the simple act of typing in a few words into a search engine will virtually instantaneously produce links related to the topic at hand. But the vetting of the accuracy of information obtained in this manner is not a simple manner. What one often gets is no more than abstract summaries of lengthy articles. As a consequence, I suspect that the number of downloads of any given scientific paper has little relevance to the number of times that the entire article has been read from beginning to end. My advice is that if you want to do some seriously thinking than you better disconnect the Internet, phone and television set and try spending 24 hours in absolute solitude.”
I could not agree more.