The Internet and You

| Tue May 12, 2009 12:23 PM EDT

Peter Suderman thinks the web isn't making us dumber, it's just making us different:

Reading on the web is almost certainly affecting the way we process information, but it’s not making us stupid. Instead, it’s changing the way we’re smart. Rather than storehouses of in-depth information, the web is turning our brains into indexes. These days, it’s not what you know — it’s what you know you can access, and cross reference.

In other words, books taught us to think like they do — as tools for storing extensive knowledge. Now the web teaches us to think like it does — as a tool for recall and connection. We won’t be so good at memorizing everything there is to know about a particular small-bore topic, but we’ll be a lot better at knowing what there is to be known about the broader category the topic fits into, and what other information might provide insight and context.

I find this an enormously appealing argument.  Unfortunately, I can't think of any evidence at all to suggest it's true.  Understanding "broader categories" — the context into which individual pieces of knowledge fit — requires you to read books.  Full stop.  Maybe someday it won't, but it does now. 

As longtime readers know, I'm generally a scourge of cranky elders who spend a lot of time kvetching about how ill educated kids are today compared to the golden age they used to live in.  Spare me.  But that doesn't mean the opposite is true either.  Kids who grow up on the internet may be great at looking up odd bits of information quickly, but my experience is that they often suck at figuring out what that information means and what conclusions it's reasonable to draw from it.  That's because they don't know the context.  They don't know the rest of the story.  And that's because they don't read enough books.

I'd love to be wrong about this.  But I'm not.  If you want to understand the world, not just collect endless factlets, you still need to read books.  If you do, the internet makes you smarter.  If you don't, it makes you dumber.