A few days ago I received this question, “In general, has the Internet diminished our ability to think critically or are we more informed than previous generations – or both?” My answer is no, the internet has not diminished our ability to think critically, it has just reduced the need, in most people’s minds anyway, to think critically. Are we more informed than previous generations? Well, according to an Merriam Webster informed means having information or based on possession of information, such as an informed opinion. It can also mean in general terms educated or knowledgeable. And with that definition in mind, I would say no, and yes. No, because I do not believe the ability to read about nearly anything imaginable on Wikipedia makes me more knowledgeable when my grandmother might have been. And yes, because if informed means having information, than we certainly have more information at our fingertips than our grandparents might have dreamed of at our age.
According to a writer from the New York Times the answer is no. His article says that all of this talk makes so sense. He points to the scientists of today, who make dizzying progress in their various fields, and are always on the computer, often have the latest and greatest mobile technology, and lecture using powerpoints and keynotes. He brings up two very good points. One, that like anything else, this is simply a time to learning some self control. Have work to do? Get off Facebook and Twitter. Want to be able to reflect deeply on what you read online? Practice! This is in part why most of us go to school, so we can learn about the world, and be encouraged to think about what we are learning, instead of just taking in whatever is sent our way. This is the practice that bothers me the most. “But I read it on the internet!” The internet is not infallible, it was made by people! And people make mistakes, and a great deal of what I read on the internet ends up being personal opinions, in various states of being well thought-out and well-written. If you take everything you read as fact, then you yourself are making yourself “stupider”, because you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to form your own opinions, and think of your own solutions.
The internet, and all the information is holds are wondrous tools, as is Facebook, and as are all of our amazing mobile phones. All of these things are simply tools, and it is up to us how we use them. Do we want to be distracted constantly? Well, there are plenty of options! But if you truly want to, you can turn off notifications, you can close the IM window, you can turn off sound, you can change your settings, and you can walk away from your computer and turn off your phone. We choose to be distracted.
I really enjoyed the article Does Google make us stupid? on pewresearch.org. The writers gathered opinions from many different teachers and professionals from around the world. One professor from Australia used the illustration of a calculator, “my ability to do mental arithmetic is worse than my grandfather’s because I grew up in an era with pervasive personal calculators…. I am not stupid compared to my grandfather, but I believe the development of my brain has been changed by the availability of technology. And this is true. We’ve seen new techniques used in schools, because teaching and learning is an ever evolving process. Speaking of calculators, when I was in school, I had a graphing calculator, but the thing confused me so much that I learned to do most of the graphing and calculations myself, on paper. My brother reached the same class, inherited my same calculator, and never worked out a single calculation himself. Now you tell me, who was or is smarter? Me, because I could do calculus in my head and on paper? Or my brother, for being able to make use of the tools we were allowed to use?
My answer is, nothing can make us individually smarter or stupider, we choose. We have more information available to us, and can be the best informed people in history if we wish. We can be the most well-read people in the history of the world if we wish. We can use our tools for good, or avoid really thinking. As of right now, Google, and the internet, cannot make us do anything. It is my choice to read through an entire article or skim a few points here and there. My choice to IM my friends instead of writing an blog. Technology and our other tools become their most dangerous when we give them the responsibility for our well-being, instead of keeping it for ourselves.