If you're stupid, it's not Google's fault

Three out of four people think the Internet makes us smarter, study shows

If you're stupid, you can't blame Google .

Three out of four people surveyed said they think using the Internet is making us smarter, not more stupid, according to a study jointly done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center. The question was posed in reaction to tech author Nicholas Carr's cover story in a 2009 issue of the Atlantic Monthly -- Is Google Making us Stupid?

The study polled 895 technologists, business executives, scientists and analysts as part of Pew's fourth annual Future of the Internet study.

Carr's article, which ran last summer, contended that the ease of online search and the distraction of browsing could be limiting his mental abilities.

"The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds," wrote Carr. "In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas."

Most of the people in the survey disagreed, however.

According to the study, 76% of everyone polled said that by 2020 intelligence will be enhanced by the ease of access to information. People will become smarter and make better choices. Only 21% said the Internet could be lowering the IQs of avid users.

Carr, responding to the survey, said he hasn't changed his position.

"I feel compelled to agree with myself," he wrote in a response that was attached to the survey's findings. "But I would add that the Net's effect on our intellectual lives will not be measured simply by average IQ scores. What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking."

Peter Norvig, research director at Google , also wrote a response, noting that skimming countless sources of information and having good concentration can co-exist.

"My conclusion is that when the only information on a topic is a handful of essays or books, the best strategy is to read these works with total concentration," wrote Norvig. "But when you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview. Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld . Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin.

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Sharon Gaudin

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