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Is the Internet Making Us Smarter or Stupider?

Question: Is the Internet making us smarter or stupider?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I think when we’re thinking about how digital media is influencing our lives and influencing society I think it’s very easy to break arguments down into two different camps.  You have digital enthusiasts and optimists who argue that everything has changed, everything is different, that individuals and groups are strongly empowered now in an era of digital media.  On the other hand you have digital pessimists and internet pessimists, who talk about the distractions of the internet and in fact actually the internet makes it easier for those traditionally in power or for traditional media organizations to market to us and to influence our lives. But the reality is that the truth is somewhere in between.  Oftentimes arguments and anecdotal evidence are pulled together to argue in somewhat of a simplistic direction in either way, but the real question should be under what conditions, under what situations, for what issues.  What types of media and what types of users has the digital age led to empowerment and civic participation and greater control and greater choice and under what conditions does the Internet lead to negative consequences either for civic culture or for just personal well-being?  

What are some examples of positive change?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well you know I think as Clay Shirky, I think, argues quite effectively there is sort of unlimited creative opportunities for individuals, individuals either as individual creators of content or in collaboration.  He often points to Wikipedia.  He argues that if we just… if the world public or Americans just took a fraction of the time that we formerly spent with traditional media and we used it in terms of some type of collective creative process, as has been done with Wikipedia, we can transform culture and we can create new knowledge and in that case I think he is right.  I think that Wikipedia is a great example of collective creativity and kind of knowledge creation that transcends sort of the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge in society—whether it was formally the editors of encyclopedias, journalists or traditional academics and researchers. So I think that is one example for sure. 

On the other hand there are all sorts of other examples I think where the digital age continues to distract us and leads to different types of negative consequences.  One of the examples I like to use with my students is I often relate when I was in college at Dartmouth in the early '90s we went four years basically without ever watching television.  We had no cable access in our rooms and we had very limited access to broadcast stations.  Today’s students they don’t watch physically a TV, but they probably spend more time watching actual traditional television content by way of their laptops than any college generation in history.  That is fundamentally different now about the college experience.  The amount of time that students are spending online sure they’re watching a lot of independently produced video at different places, but most of what they watch are traditional media products simply streamed to them by way of their laptops. 

And some negative consequences?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I think the negative consequences is that, you know, the traditional arguments and the criticisms about television in terms of the portrayals and entertainment portrayals either of negative stereotypes, of the types of time-displacement and distraction that happens when a viewing public might spend on average four hours of TV, four hours a day watching TV.  That time is probably better spent doing other things, either reading or outside physical activity or in terms of social interaction.  All of those negative consequences for many users of online media are amplified today.  You have a lot of data and a lot of studies about internet addiction and if anything the conversations that are happening on Twitter, at blogs, on Facebook, most of those conversations are in and around and about entertainment content that is produced by traditional media companies. 

Recorded on July 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman

The answer lies somewhere in between, says Nisbet.

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