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December 10, 2015

Has the Internet Made Us Smarter?

The Internet has, essentially, been around for 20 years. During that time, the entire world has literally been at our fingertips online.  But has the advent of the World Wide Web made people smarter, or has it truly made us dumber as we become more reliant on having access to all kinds of information at the click of a mouse?  In today’s blog, I will look at how the Internet has affected us as a species, as well as examining whether it appears to be helping or hurting our intellectual evolution.  I will also delve into the rise of web-enabled “smart devices” that will soon be taking control of everything from our appliances to driving our cars.

Caution: Slippery Road Ahead

Upon entering the office building where I work, I saw a young woman who works in the office across the hall coming down the stairs.  Wearing high heels with her head canted forward, she was looking at her Smartphone and texting as she descended the staircase.

“You’d better be careful before you wind up taking a tumble,” I told her as she made her way through the lobby.

“Not to worry,” she responded without looking up from her phone.  “I do this all the time.”

“I know,” I said.  “That’s what I’m worried about.” As she headed toward the exit, I looked back to see if she ran into the door, as well as wondering whether I was the only one who seemed to realize that the world is becoming an increasingly impersonal place?

Perhaps it is a generational issue. I well remember a time when people weren’t so absorbed in technology that it became a hazard to their health.  I also remember when people took the time to meet and talk without having to bring their technological ball and chain with them.

People need to realize that the same technology that puts the world at our fingertips has actually caused our species to become more and more isolated.  Between texting, social networking, chat rooms, home delivery apps and virtual worlds such as Second Life, it is now possible to avoid interpersonal contact altogether.  (Any parent of a teenager will agree with this conundrum.)  What’s even worse is that technology has insinuated itself into practically every corner of modern society.  If you don’t believe me, go to a restaurant or coffee shop and see how many people are either texting or surfing the web while they eat, even if they have a dining companion sitting across from them.  Most people refer to this as multi-tasking.  I call it rude.

Research has shown multi-tasking isn’t helping us as a species.  It’s hurting us.  Everyone from Stanford Professor Dr. Clifford Nass to Michael Gazziniga, Director of the Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, agrees that multi-tasking negatively affects everything from attention span and writing quality, to task completion and brain function.

Stanford researchers compared groups of people based on their tendency to multitask and their belief that it helps their performance. They found that heavy multi-taskers—those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance—were actually worse at multi-tasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time. The frequent multi-taskers performed worse because they had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another. Ouch.”

Even more disturbing is that the study found evidence that persistently heavy multi-tasking was shown to actually lower IQ scores by up to 15 points.

(Score Internet 1, Evolution 0)

When the Stanford research was performed, it was assumed that there must be some advantage to multi-tasking.  So they set out to find it: “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it,” said Ophir, the study’s lead author and a researcher in Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.

The researchers created two groups of students, those who heavily engaged in media multi-tasking and those who didn’t.  Each group was then given a series of exercises to test everything from pattern recognition and organizational skills to their ability to filter out irrelevant information.  To their surprise, the research indicated that the more heavily students engaged in multi-tasking, the worse they did at these tasks.  Puzzled at why the multi-taskers did so poorly, the researchers thought that maybe they excelled at switching from one task to another.  So they tested this hypothesis only to conclude that once again, the light multi-taskers outperformed the heavy multi-taskers.

“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multi-taskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

So profound were the discoveries made in this study that it led the researchers to wonder if it was the Internet that had somehow interfered with the cognitive function of the brains of students who were heavily into multi-tasking, or if they were in fact born with an inability to concentrate.  Either way, the heavy multi-taskers, by exhibiting an inability to filter out irrelevant information were clearly at a disadvantage.  Even more alarming, some of the heavy multi-taskers also exhibited the same physiological symptoms as drug addicts.  In other words, the more they multitasked, the more electronic stimuli they craved.

Can You Say Crackberry?

Courtesy of  www.flickr.com

Courtesy of  www.flickr.com

Online addiction is not a new phenomenon.  Ever since video games were introduced back in the 1970s a percentage of the population has espoused a propensity to playing until they dropped.  Back then to feed this Jones meant lining up with quarters at the local arcade or locking yourself in your bedroom to play game consoles until your parents dragged you downstairs for dinner.  But with the advent of the Smartphone, the ability to feed your need at any time and place means that a much higher percentage of the population is psychologically addicted to tech in one form or another.  This is creating a problem for many.

Benjamin Wong, a counsellor at Richmond Addiction Services, said he works with individuals between the ages of 12 to 25 and their families to support them in dealing with digital addictions — when they just can’t separate themselves from a screen, be it a smartphone, computer or gaming device.”

The effort to break a digital addiction takes a lot of time (as much as a year).  It also isn’t relegated merely to Millennials.  Even Baby Boomers can get hooked on tech.  And the tawdry road that leads to digital addiction is a more slippery slope than that experienced by devotees of illicit pharmaceuticals.  As opposed to back alley deals, digital addiction can be as simple as accessing your favorite social media site.

In a report last year from CBS News entitled, How Real a Risk is Social Media Digital Addiction,” social media marketer Jason Thibeault reported that he quit Facebook cold turkey when he realized that it was becoming an addiction.

“Just imagine that Facebook is like a digital water cooler. I was drinking A TON of water every hour,” he wrote. “Although I’m not a neuroscientist, I’d venture to say that what was happening was related to my Dopamine levels — when I was checking status updates on Facebook, my brain was rewarding itself with Dopamine; when I wasn’t, and Dopamine levels dropped as a result, I started ‘jonesing for a fix.'”

You heard that right — he was jonesing for a Facebook Fix. Is it any wonder that professionals, including the National Institutes of Health are becoming increasingly concerned over the deleterious effects of digital addiction.  While Information Addiction Disorder (IAD) is still not listed as an official psychiatric disorder, its counterpart, Internet Gaming Addiction was added in 2013, (better late than never).

(Score: Internet 2 Evolution: 0)

As society continues to plot its course toward technological domination, IAD will continue to spread as the Internet becomes available to more and more of the world’s population. (Google is building blimps that are intended to bring the Internet to isolated parts of the world.) To make matters worse, a new age of internet-enabled appliances, clothing and devices such as cars are going to inevitably make inroads into a number of areas that were once thought exclusively the domain of human beings.

I could quite easily wax apocalyptic on how Smart houses, clothes, cars and appliances are going to lead to the disintegration of what’s left of society, but I think I’ll let IDG Enterprise CEO Mike Friedenberg chime in with his post on cio.com:

“I look back at the time my parents taught me how to parallel park, and it’s a very fond memory. Now all you need to do is push a button and your car will parallel park itself. Makes me wonder what our lives will become. Is the future really about pushing a lot of buttons to get things done? Attending the Consumer Electronics Show this year, you would have thought it was the Year of Smart: smart homes, smart cars, smart fridges, smart forks and spoons, smart watches, smart TVs, and even smart toilets. All of these devices have the ultimate goal of tracking, storing, analyzing, optimizing and educating us humans on how we can be better, healthier, fitter or smarter. It was all a bit overwhelming. If only everything that happens in Vegas really did stay there. ”

(Score: Internet 3 Evolution: 0)

The new Terminator movie depicts a possible scenario of our not too distant future. In this future, everyone was wanting and waiting for a single operating system called Genesis. This new OS would run every machine and appliance that we use. The reason people wanted this change was so that it would make it easier for us to learn and use these devices. However the new OS in the movie was actually the artificial intelligence called Sky Net – poised to take over the world and kill off most of the human race. This is not too different from the doomsday proclamations as those issued by the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking concerning the emergence of artificial intelligence.

It cannot be denied the Internet has allowed us access to vast amounts of information and given us a huge knowledge base to draw from. With this the huge amount of knowledge also come a vast amount of responsibility. As to whether the Internet is going to wind up making us smarter or dumber, all I can say is this: If society takes just a few more steps toward technology, it’s probably going to be game, set, match as far as human evolution is concerned.


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Carl Weiss has been working the web to win since 1995 and has helped hundreds of companies increase their online results. He is president of W Squared Media and co-host of the weekly radio show Working the Web to Win which airs Tuesdays at 4pm Eastern on BlogTalkRadio.com. Click here to get his latest book "Working The Web to Win: When it comes to online marketing, you can't win, if you don't know how to play the game!".

One Response to “Has the Internet Made Us Smarter?

    Yes, in some way it’s but some aspects it internet made us lazy!

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