Internet Changing Brain from Storehouse to Index
Responding to the growing meme that the information overflow created by the Internet is making us dumber, Peter Suderman responds that,
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.
That accords with my own experience. There’s not much doubt that the Web has shortened my attention span; I want to get to the point now and be able to bypass things that don’t interest me. I read far fewer books than I did just a few years ago even though I read much more content. And, yes, I almost certainly store less trivia in my head than I once did.
It also occurs to me that this is the Americanization of intelligence. As both a student and a teacher, I noticed that European, Asian, and African undergraduates seemed to have a much better storehouse of knowledge about a given topic, having memorized much more information about it, but that American students were better at processing given information and providing novel responses. Whereas their system encouraged rote learning, ours emphasized understanding and deduction. With Google largely obviating memorization, it stands to reason that what will be prized in the future is the ability to access information and do something with it.
Photo by Flickr user alles-schlumf, used under Creative Commons license.