Commentary

Do Search Engines Make People Smarter -- Or Lazier?

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An online survey of 371 experts and 524 Internet users reveal more than three-quarters believe the Web will make people smarter by 2020 -- while21% think the Internet would have the opposite effect and could even lower the IQs of some who use it all the time. The study, released Friday from the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the Internet Center at Elon University looked at the Internet and its effect on human intelligence. Most respondents also said they believe the Internet will improve reading and writing by 2020, 

Many of those considered experts are scientists, business leaders, consultants, writers and technology developers, such as technology scholar Nicholas Carr.

In fact, Carr's cover story for the Atlantic Monthly -- entitled "Is Google Making us Stupid?" -- prompted the study. Carr, whom I had the pleasure of sitting next to during a dinner at a semiconductor conference in 2000, argued in the article that the ease of online searching, plus the distractions of Web browsing, were possibly limiting his capacity to concentrate, according to Pew. I realize that in the article he made the assumption he's not "thinking the way [he] used to" because of Google. From my brief three-hour conversation and interaction with him, I can almost assure you that he's pointing the finger at the wrong culprit.

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As the Pew study points out, search engines aren't the problem or the solution. The Internet and search engines just enable people to explore information or hide from it. If they are motivated to learn. they will use the tool to explore topics. If they are lazy or incapable of concentrating, they will find new ways to be distracted.

Some of those ways people could learn or get distracted are available in gadgets and mobile applications. About 80% of the experts agreed that "hot gadgets and applications" will emerge "out of the blue" to capture the imaginations of people in 2020.

Many surveyed said people have had little success in predicting the advent of key technologies and applications, but they do expect major advancements in mobile technology and devices -- a statement  I don't fully agree with. Many innovative technologies are born from the need to spawn a new industry. For example, in 2001 during my talk with Roy Vallee, chief executive officer for electronic components distributor Avnet, he suggested that mobile would emerge as a trend in the next decade supported by the telecommunications and semiconductor industries.

I don't think, however, that the issues surrounding privacy could have been predicted. Experts participating in the Pew survey were divided on whether anonymous online activity will diminish, with nearly 40% predicting that anonymous Internet users will have their access sharply reduced.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, believes the privacy and civil liberties battles during the next decade will focus on demand for identity credentials. "New systems for authentication will bring new problems, as more identity information will create new opportunities for criminals," he said.

3 comments about "Do Search Engines Make People Smarter -- Or Lazier?".
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  1. Brian Asner from Upshot, February 22, 2010 at 4:16 p.m.

    I'm glad to see the author acknowledge that "search engines aren't the problem or the solution." Ever since Carr's provocative article, the debate about search engines making us "smart" or "stupid" seems to be missing the point. Search engines are neutral instruments; it's what we do with the information that matters.

    Yes, there's a risk that search engines undermine the need for rote memorization. But, if that brain power is harnessed instead to make novel connections between seemingly-unrelated information, or used to tap the wisdom of crowds to solve daunting social problems, that seems like a pretty positive trade-off to me. (We actually address this question in a blog post here: http://bit.ly/9gVk3t.)

  2. Alison Hillhouse from Taylor, February 22, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.

    Great post – I also found the verbatims from this study on Pew’s website very insightful. Most respondents present a generally balanced viewpoint on how Google makes us both “stupid” (generally defined as the inability to concentrate on longer form pieces and difficulties with rote memorization) as well as “smarter” (often defined as the ability to synthesize more information and draw more connections between ideas.) I frequently engage in the Google “smart vs stupid” debate with others and find that when people claim it makes us stupid it is often born out of nostalgia for old fashioned methods of learning and processing information. Especially for those who excelled academically, there seems to be nostalgia for memorization (be it timetables or historical facts) and taking time to find the right information (hours spent in a library looking for source material versus Googling it – which is a perception more than a reality since finding the right information on Google certainly takes time.) Many also feel nostalgic for the days they could become fully engrossed in a novel without the mental interruption of needing to investigate some random fact on the web, whereas younger people don’t feel nostalgic for the days they used to know how to concentrate.

  3. Megan Leap from MarketingProfs, February 23, 2010 at 8:31 a.m.

    @Brian I couldn't agree more, "search engines are neutral instruments." In business they say "caveat emptor. " (buyer beware), and in search it goes the same: searcher beware. However, if marketers offer up correct and specific information to a targeted audience, we'll be doing our part to increase the accuracy of search results our campaigns are a part of.

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