Imagine a large auditorium with a boxing ring in the middle. "Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer's voice echoes, "in this corner, we have the Wall Street Journal, saying computers make you smarter. And in the opposite corner, the New York Times, saying they make you dumber."
In the WSJ-colored trunks, Clay Shirky, NYU prof, author, intellectual. And for the Times, Matt Richtel, of the San Francisco bureau, in Silicon-Valley-colored trunks. Let the games begin. Shirky fired first, last Friday, but that sequence spoils the drama, so let's pretend Richtel came first, in the Times, with Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price:
Mr. Campbell continues to struggle with the effects of the deluge of data. Even after he unplugs, he craves the stimulation he gets from his electronic gadgets. He forgets things like dinner plans, and he has trouble focusing on his family.
His wife, Brenda, complains, "It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment."
This is your brain on computers.
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.
Ouch. Does that strike you as familiar? Worries about attention span, multi-tasking, and so on, dumbing us all down? Sure. We've heard it a lot lately. Actually -- although it spoils my prize fight event metaphor -- that has to go back a year or so at least, to Nicholas Carr's articles in the Atlantic and the Washington Post previewing his book The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains. So we turn to Shirky and the Journal for some optimism, in Does the Internet make you smarter?:
The present is, as noted, characterized by lots of throwaway cultural artifacts, but the nice thing about throwaway material is that it gets thrown away. This issue isn't whether there's lots of dumb stuff online -- there is, just as there is lots of dumb stuff in bookstores. The issue is whether there are any ideas so good today that they will survive into the future. Several early uses of our cognitive surplus, like open source software, look like they will pass that test.
Could this just be smart people hyping their books? Possibly. Did I forget to mention Shirky's new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age?
Oh, and by the way, the WSJ Shirky article includes a poll asking the crucial question: is the Internet Making Us Smarter or Dumber? Results, as I write this: 65% of us said smarter. But maybe we're just too dumb to realize.