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Computers Aren't Making Us Stupid, They're the Only Things That Can Keep Us Smart

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Last week, a bit of a debate unfolded on the pages of the New York Times about whether the proliferation of data on the real-time web is actually making us more unintelligent. The initial volley was fired here in a feature article detailing some scientific findings about how multitasking may be rewiring our brains. The article argues that constantly being connected to a wide-range of information sources is fragmenting our attention spans and corrupting our life experiences.

But I agree the counterpoint made here by Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard. The technology that we are plugged into helps us manage and digest the vast amount of knowledge and intellectual output that the human race is capable of creating. Without it, we would surely be worse off. The information stream is the only thing that will keep us smart.

Mind Over Mass Media

New forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.

So too with electronic technologies. PowerPoint, we’re told, is reducing discourse to bullet points. Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths. Twitter is shrinking our attention spans.

But such panics often fail basic reality checks. When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline. The decades of television, transistor radios and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continuously.

Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

via Op-Ed Contributor - Mind Over Mass Media - NYTimes.com. By Steven Pinker.