Are iPads, smartphones, and the Mobile Web rewiring the way we think?
Multitasking on smartphones, iPads, and the Mobile Web makes some feel smarter and others just more scattered. Is it changing how we think?
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And while only 23 percent of adults think they personally spend too much time on their Internet-linked gadgets, according to a Rasmussen Reports survey earlier this year, 75 percent think young children spent too much time online and playing video games.Skip to next paragraph
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But plenty of high-powered intellects remain skeptical that hours spent online is "rewiring our brains" or making us dumber.
"It's indisputable that the Internet has made us smarter.... The range of things you can explore in a day is just fantastic compared to 20 years ago," says David Weinberger, senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "There's no question that we feel the Internet has made us better researchers, better thinkers, better writers."
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, points out that one kind of deep thinking – scientific research – is flourishing today as the Internet allows unprecedented levels of collaboration and cooperation. "Discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying," he wrote last month in The New York Times.
Paul Saffo, a longtime Silicon Valley technology forecaster, says the engineering students he teaches at Stanford University in California show outstanding skills in what he calls "associative memory" – how to know what to look for. "They're fast with [making] connections," he says. "Yes, they're probably less likely to read a 500-page book than their parents were. But ... I can remember when I was in college, I didn't exactly leap at the opportunity to spend a day reading a 500-page book either."
The "rewiring our brains" argument could just as easily be blamed on watching too much television, "if it's even really happening," Mr. Saffo suggests. "I've had an e-mail account since 1984. And I've got two computers running in here. But the biggest problem in my office is tripping over all the books."
What the Internet has done for him is "cut in on my time" to read books by giving him more choices and temptations, he says. "But it hasn't made me become more shallow."
Perhaps the printed book, revered by old-school scholars as the ideal vehicle for promoting deep thinking but bereft of hyperlinks and static and unchanging, is actually holding back our thinking process and intellectual endeavors, Mr. Weinberger argues.
Books "are not the shape of knowledge," he says. "They're a limitation on knowledge." The idea of a single author presenting her ideas "was born of the limitations of paper publishing. It's not necessarily the only way or the best way to think and to write."
Paper requires a writer to divide topics and to "close them off," Weinberger says. "All these are very unnatural things. The world does not consist of topics that begin on Page 1 and end on Page 256. The Internet has a better ability to reflect the structure of knowledge than books do."
On the Web, if a writer allows readers to comment he can't expect to command an argument without interruption. But his thinking may be stimulated by what others have to say. "It seems to me we're better off for that," Weinberger says. "It's going to be distracting, sure," he adds, but if they're saying interesting things, "that's also enriching.... Isn't that better?"