From ape to 'Homo digitas'?

Some say the Net is spawning a new species. But it's unclear whether its members are any smarter than their predecessors.

This is part two of a three-part series on intelligence and computing. Click here for part one.

Jonathan Zittrain has seen a new species emerging in recent years. He calls it "Homo digitas."

"The vision (is) of someone glued to a chair, focused on a screen, interacting as an object, a person whose main identification is as a digital creature, who doesn't know what to do without a signal," said Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

But for all the knowledge available on the Internet, it's not so clear that the modern, computer-using Homo digitas is any more intelligent than the good, old-fashioned Homo sapien.


What's new:
Will vast amounts of readily available information and tantalizing possibilities for collective learning make for a smarter populace?

Bottom line:
All the knowledge on the Internet doesn't mean people in the age of technology are any more intelligent than the good, old-fashioned Homo sapien. People must cultivate the ability to navigate dynamic, virtual environments for information, then be able to evaluate and analyze that information critically.

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Still, there are tantalizing signs of what could be. Communities of software developers, connected through the Internet, for example, have managed to create in a matter of months and at little cost what used to take big companies years and billions of dollars to develop. That collective intelligence of open-source projects shows how the world could get a lot smarter, thanks to the Net.

"Collectively and collaboratively, this is the most promising potential for really developing our collective ability to learn and think," said Doug Engelbart, a pioneer of personal-computing technology in the 1960s who conceived of the computer mouse.

But it's not so easy to say how or whether individuals are getting any smarter. Truth is, getting along in this world as a Homo digitas isn't easy. People must cultivate the ability to navigate dynamic, virtual environments for information, then be able to evaluate and analyze that information critically. On the Internet, it isn't always easy ferreting out fantasy from reality and truth from fabrication.

Just 10 years ago, if you wanted specific information you'd go to the library to check out a book. The fact that the book was in the library's collection meant that someone had vetted the work for credibility or value to society. The Web, on the other hand, holds few rules of selectivity or standards. Anyone can publish books, blogs, zines, videos or podcasts.

"The skill is moving around in a knowledge repository to...find out and learn things," Engelbart said. "It's one thing to ask a search engine a question. But it's another thing to go through and evaluate things that are relevant and tie them together."

Being able to organize all that data is also an important survival skill. No self-respecting Net denizen can get along without knowing all the advanced settings on at least three major search engines. And the ability to categorize e-mails in nifty folders while simultaneously tracking the windows of several instant-messaging sessions on the fly is pretty helpful too.

Shopping for ideas or products on the Net means people must process, compare and analyze much more information. Buying a pair of shoes off-line, a consumer might visit one or two stores. Online, people have the ability to compare product attributes in large numbers. The resulting glut of information puts a higher demand on them to put the information in their working memory--and process it, psychologists say.

Children must also become more skeptical judges of information, and in a sense, they must grow out of the sandbox more quickly. Years ago, kids were expected to tune into an authoritative voice in the classroom or elsewhere and paraphrase it to get an "A." Now children must apply critical thinking skills to sort through the vast amounts of junk on the Web.

"There is a shift that happens: If you start to lose attachment to facts in your head, if you always have to reach outside, then putting ideas together in novel ways will become impossible," said Brewster Kahle, executive director of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization that is keeping a record of the changes of the Net. "And that's the essence of thinking. We have to train and expect critical thinking--not just Web surfing."

Lost in a world of GPS
As a result, what kids do all day in school--indeed, how adults educate themselves, as well--may have to change. Until it does, many believe it'll be a long time before society becomes more intelligent as a result of the Net.

"Educating our kids and having them learn to educate themselves is completely changing, and I don't think we're ready for that in our schools," Zittrain said.

That's not to say people aren't getting a little smarter. A New Zealand researcher named Jim Flynn discovered in the 1980s that the average IQ test scores were ticking up by three points--a full standard deviation--every decade since the beginning of the 1900s. It's known as the Flynn Effect.

People are advancing in the ability to process information or problems, but they're not improving in verbal or critical thinking skills, according to several professors tracking intelligence. No one knows exactly why the average mean is trending up, but researchers suspect any number of things, including nutrition, experience with test-taking, and cultural attitudes.

On an individual level, however, it's much easier for people reliant on their computers to feel dumber when they're not online. Without a

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