Experts Ponder if Internet Makes Us Dumber

By Ethan Klapper

The Internet is a tool, not a “god-like source of knowledge,” according to bestselling author Susan Jacoby, who is on a campaign against American anti-intellectualism.

At an American Forum March 31 on the question: “Are media making us dumber?” Jacoby repeatedly questioned the value of the Internet.

“[The Internet] does not tell us how the information we get fits into a larger body of knowledge,” she said.

Andy Carvin, senior strategist for online communities at National Public Radio, frequently disagreed with Jacoby.

“I think it’s fair to say that the Internet doesn’t necessarily make us smarter,” he said. “But, by the same token, I’d have to say it doesn’t necessarily make us dumber, either. It’s a platform, it’s a technology, it’s pathways for people to interact with each other, and share content, and access content and so it’s very much what you make of it.”

Josh Hatch, a multimedia producer for USA Today, called the Internet an “agnostic tool,” which prompted a quick response from Jacoby in what at times became a heated exchange.

“There is no such thing as an agnostic tool,” Jacoby said. “One of the things we are ignoring is that the experience of reading on the Internet has nothing in common with the experience of reading as it has traditionally been experienced.”

But perhaps the most contentious moment of the one-hour discussion, which was broadcast April 1 on WAMU 88.5 FM, was on the question of whether online interactions count as real relationships.

Jacoby said the Internet was “displacing face-to-face conversation,” and warned, “Don’t tell me about all the wonderful conversations that are taking place on e-mail.”

Andy Carvin jumped in to recount that as a new parent, he “had no social life whatsoever” but was able to maintain friendships online.

Kathryn Montgomery, a professor at American University’s School of Communication, supported the value of using social media to enhance interpersonal relationships.

“There’s no question texting, for example, is an extension of social relationships, and in many ways I think it enhances social relationships,” she said. “It’s a terrific tool, I think particularly for adolescents who are learning how to develop social relationships.”

But Jacoby begged to differ.

“Certainly, friendship is not Twittering with somebody once in a while, and e-mailing somebody,” she said. “Friendship is, if they’re sick, going over and helping them. Friendship is occasionally spending a few hours with somebody whose partner of 30 years has died.”

Montgomery then rebutted by raising the point of whether a phone call counted as friendship.

Jacoby, whose comments sometimes elicited laughter from a predominantly college-age crowed, later summed up what she thought of the Internet: overhyped.

“One of my objections is not to the Internet per se, but to the fact that it is often touted as something that teaches you how to learn,” she said.

She agreed with Carvin that an NPR project using crowd-sourcing helped the broadcaster accomplish a lot during the campaign season.

As Carvin explained, NPR had users of the popular microblogging service Twitter include the word “factcheck” in their tweets if they heard something questionable during the debates. Then, a team of NPR staff investigated these allegations by Twitter users and their work helped drive the public radio network’s coverage.

“While we had maybe half a dozen or so reporters who were focused all that night and into the morning on fact checking, it was like they had hundreds of interns working for them all over the world trying to help out,” Carvin said.

“I thought your Twitter project was brilliant, too, about the debates,” Jacoby said.

In response to a student, Montgomery said that Facebook and other social networking tools have very beneficial effects.

“These new tools new tools create all kinds of possibilities we didn’t have before,” Montgomery said. “That’s fabulous.”

In February, Twitter traffic grew by about 700 percent over last year, according numbers released April 7 by Internet analytics firm comScore.

Facebook just crossed the 200 million-user mark in the past few weeks, according to their Web site. This exceeds the population of many countries.

“I wonder sometimes about whether these things replace ways to connect with friends,” Montgomery said.


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