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The Internet can make you smarter, experts say

Three out of four experts believe the Internet can improve our reading, writing, and knowledge, according to Pew Internet, which also peered into the future.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
4 min read

Though it may not always feel like it, the Internet is actually making us smarter, at least according to a new survey of scientists, business leaders, and technology developers.

A collection of 900 experts interviewed for the Pew Internet report The Future of the Internet IV, released last Friday, were asked their views on how the Internet is affecting us--now and in another 10 years. Though most felt that the Internet can and would improve our reading, writing, and overall grasp of knowledge, some were reluctant to jump on that bandwagon.

"Three out of four experts said our use of the Internet enhances and augments human intelligence, and two-thirds said use of the Internet has improved reading, writing, and rendering of knowledge," said Janna Anderson, study co-author and director of the Imagining the Internet Center, in a statement. "There are still many people, however, who are critics of the impact of Google, Wikipedia, and other online tools."

In the summer of 2008, writer Nick Carr wrote a controversial article for The Atlantic entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Pew Internet asked the same question of its panel of experts.

Most disagreed with the premise that browsing and skimming through Web sites is lowering our ability to concentrate. Some said that Google makes us more informed and creative. Others said sites like Google make us intellectually lazy. And for many, the answer was not as simple as the question.

"Google will make us stupid and intelligent at the same time," wrote Dutch Futurist Marcel Bullinga. "In the future, we will live in a transparent 3D mobile media cloud that surrounds us everywhere. In this cloud, we will use intelligent machines, to whom we delegate both simple and complex tasks. Therefore, we will lose the skills we needed in the old days...But we will gain the skill to make better choices...All in all, I think the gains outweigh the losses."

Pew Internet

The report also looked at responses to other key questions.

Will the Internet enhance or weaken our reading and writing skills? Though 65 percent of respondents felt that such skills are improving thanks to the Net, some experts decried the quick, throwaway style of writing found on the Web, e-mails, and instant messages. But again, many saw both the pros and cons of the Internet's effects on our reading, writing, and comprehension.

"Spelling and grammar have gotten worse. People don't think things through or edit as much before publishing or sending as they once did," wrote Rebecca MacKinnon of the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. "But on the other hand, the Internet has improved my Chinese reading and writing ability. The hyperlink enables me to communicate in non-linear ways that adds layers of meaning to my writing that could not exist on paper. The fact that I can mix visuals, sound, and text when making an argument or telling a story often enhances the effectiveness of my work."

The survey also asked whether most of the upcoming hot inventions have already been anticipated, or will many come from "out of the blue?" Most of the experts felt that the gadgets and applications destined to capture our imaginations in another 10 years will be unexpected, even by today's smartest innovators. But again, many qualified their answers and offered their own ideas on what we might see by 2020.

"The correct answer is a combination of the two," wrote MIT professor David Clark. "I think in the 'device' space we can see much of what will happen over the next few years: the ubiquitous availability of sensors and actuators, the cyber-car, various sorts of implants and proto-cyborg elements. But the application space is harder to predict."

Pew Internet

Will the Internet still be free and unfettered in 2020, or will there be more control of information? On this issue, 61 percent of the experts believe the Internet's basic principles of free and open access of information will prevail. Some took a more pessimistic tone, fearing that nations like China and Iran will continue to try to retain power by controlling Internet access, and that vendors and corporations will increasingly limit access to users. But many were more split down the middle.

"It seems to me inevitable that nation states will attempt to exert more control over the Internet," wrote Hal Varian, chief economist at Google. "However, I think that these will be relatively small changes, so that the internet will remain relatively free."

Finally, will we still be able to remain relatively anonymous online in 2020? Here, the results were more mixed--only 55 percent of respondents said that most people will still be able to create, communicate, and browse on the Net without revealing who they are. But again, many were less optimistic.

"Online anonymity is under threat and is unlikely to remain substantially the same in the next decade" said Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices. "While there are excellent, compelling reasons to ensure that anonymous speech is possible on the Internet, there's a concerted effort to eliminate anonymity to address concerns about criminal behavior, fraud, spam, and terrorism. Because there's not an organized anonymity lobby, I fear this is a battle the anonymous will lose."

Pew Internet

This latest report was the fourth in a series of Internet studies conducted by the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University and the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. The results were culled from responses by 895 different Internet experts, who received questions via email, Twitter, or Facebook.