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Communications of the ACM


Does the Internet Make Us Stupid?

Does the Internet Make Us Stupid? illustration

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates / Shutterstock

According to Farhood Manjoo in Slate magazine, almost nobody finishes reading papers online.5 Jakob Nielsen has shown that superficial reading carries over from screens to printed material.a Bauerlein,1 Brabazon,2 Carr,4 and others have argued convincingly that the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing our reading habits to "skimming" rather than careful reading. Putting this together, I am concerned you will not read this Viewpoint carefully to the end. Hence, I better present my conclusions right away: ICTs are indeed reducing many of our cherished cognitive facilities, much as our physical fitness has been reduced by all kinds of machinery for physical work and locomotion. However, in my opinion, this is not too bad, as long as our reduced facilities are overcompensated by appropriate technology, and provided we make sure of two things: that we are not completely lost in case of large-scale breakdowns of technology, and that use of ICTs does not endanger our creativity. Both provisos are starting to receive attention: the first will hopefully be solved by introducing systems with sufficient redundancy; the second attracts varying opinions: some, like Carr, see mainly dangers, others like Thompson,7 see our future in a growing man-machine symbiosis. My own opinion is that creativity is not endangered if the new technologies are used with some caution.

If you stop reading here, you have read the important part of the message. If you continue reading, I hope I can drive home the message with emotional emphasis.


Alex Potanin

The 2012 study on violent video games causing violence linked in the article starts with a rebuttal from 2014 showing that they actually don't. Better to check the links first before citing them I guess - or could it be the inability to concentrate and doing things in a rush showing through? :-)

Atanas Radenski

An interesting and thought-provoking article, thank you. Perhaps, one can agree that "creativity is not endangered if the new technologies are used with some caution". The problem is (and I can be wrong, of course) that net technologies are driven to a large degree by market forces. Therefore, anything that impedes profits, such as 'applying some caution in the use of new technologies' can be difficult to put in practice.

Vincent Van Den Berghe

(please note: in the text below Im using the fact that Mr. Maurer mentions having a hearing aid and a pacemaker to make a point, not to discriminate or disparage him in any way. Bear with me)

Yes indeed, technology has a positive influence on many aspects of our life. I disagree that its OK if it makes us dumber, as long as we dont overly rely on it, and we retain our capacity for logical thinking and creativity.
This seems to be based on the premise that the ICTs we use are really giving us a choice about how we use them. This may not be true.

Here is something you dont know about hearing aids: they are really very smart connected Android devices.

First, a modern hearing aid will automatically filter offensive sounds. Expletives, curses and other offensive stuff is carefully edited out of the sound stream. Illegal sounds (like spoken instructions on how to bypass its filtering system) is suppressed. What gets filtered out is determined by the manufacturer and its business associates, but you dont mind since you dont know whats missing. You trust that their definition of offensive matches yours so after all, what could possibly be the added value of something you dont want to hear anyway?

Second, based on your musical preferences and buying behavior deduced from your Google account (which you needed to provide when you bought the device), certain sounds will be selectively amplified and moved to the foreground at the expense of other sounds. You will hear better what you wanted to hear in the first place, which will increase your happiness. To increase it even more, certain sounds that are not really your cup of tea (but are promoted through advertising deals with the hearing aid manufacturer) will be embellished so that they resemble more what you want to hear. When the ad campaign ends, youll probably ask yourself why you bought so much stuff you dont care about now. It sounded so good at the time!

Its possible to upgrade the hearing aid software for better sound processing. Hearing characteristics change with age, and recent software will compensate for that. So you will want to upgrade at some point.
The last upgrade (Android 7.0 Spector edition) may record and upload samples of what you hear, needs a connection to your pacemaker (if available) or will use the hearing aids microphone to monitor your heartbeat. The correlation between what you hear and how fast your heart beats is automatically collected, and this information may be used to deduce which sounds turn you on or off. There may be a couple of interesting health-related applications, but its essentially deducing a part of your emotional behavior through correlation of physical parameters, which is interesting in its own right. Imagine the potential for security related scenarios (gunfire sound + elevated heartbeat = trouble), and dynamic ad displays that use one of Pharell Williams happy sounds that cheers you up when youre in the bathroom on Monday morning.

Of course, technology respect your choices. Before you upgrade, you will be clearly notified what physical parameters will be monitored. You can chose to accept it, or not. If you dont, you will be stuck with your old Android 6.0 Wall of sound edition). But its nice to know you have a choice. The newer hearing aids will come with the Spector edition preinstalled, so thats one less thing to worry about.

Everything I wrote about hearing aids is a lie. No, they are not Android devices, and they dont to all these things. The sounds that are amplified by a hearing device are real sounds. It allows people who use them to perceive existing reality better. Any manipulation of that reality would be unacceptable, right?

And yet:
- When I search something, the results provided by Google will be in the order determined by them, based on my past behavior and the behavior of people like me. Certain results that are viewed as offensive or illegal are filtered out. And I dont know whats missing.
- When I read a book on Amazon my behavior is tracked: which books I read, how long I spent reading them, which section I like the most, which passages I highlight. This is used to recommend to me what books I may also find interesting, and to recommend to the publishers which books they need to write. Books that become controversial as a result of complaints are automatically removed from my reading device. Fortunately, I can freely chose to read another book, which hopefully is less controversial.

Distorted results, forced upgrade, tracked behavior, walled gardens, false choices. It seems that everyone is wearing Android hearing aids or using similar devices that shape our worldview in accordance with characteristics determined by someone else! With the exception of some crackpots, nobody minds.

What does that have to do with creativity? Everything! Creativity is about reflecting on the world, and finding solutions that make it better. This requires a world view that challenges us, confronts us with things that drags us out of our comfort zone and forces us to face the difficult problems. However, our worldview is increasingly perceived through technology, that filters and distorts the view at an unprecedented level nowadays. Whole generations use this technology without giving it a second thought. Yes, you can be creative even though the ICTs present a filtered world view. Yes, you can be creative in a walled garden.
But if what you can do is limited more by the walls of the garden than your imagination, people should start asking questions and care about the answers. Sadly, that doesnt happen.

What we need isnt more technology or caution. What we need is more control over the ICTs in our life. It is, after all, our life.
If we cant have more control (and Im afraid its too late to reclaim it), we need to upgrade ourselves by to be mindful users of technology, instead of the mindless consumers we are now. If we outsource the more mundane tasks to ICTs, wed better make sure that we can rely on their behavior to be determined by us, not by someone else. The balance of forces should strive to an equilibrium. More is better is not conductive to achieving such balance.

Id rather try to be a music composer whos half deaf, than use a hearing aid as described above. But thats just me.

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