I’ve been making my way through the new PEW Research Center report called “The Future of the Internet”–a compilation of 895 expert responses to an online survey delving into how the Internet will change the world by 2020. It’s the fourth comprehensive Internet survey of its kind conducted by PEW.
What you think of the responses will depend on what you think of the “experts” giving them. Obviously some are speaking as a mouthpiece of xyz organization while others are speaking only for themselves. In total, though, the results are enlightening, particularly in comparison with mainstream media positions on the effects of the Internet.
One result that’s getting much headline play is this: “76% of the experts agreed with the statement that ‘Google won’t make us stupid’.” The question put to the test the thesis of writer Nicolas Carr’s Atlantic Monthly essay from 2008, “Google is Making Us Stupid”— and most of the experts in the study believe that Carr is spot-on wrong.
The survey includes a response from Carr himself, who said “I feel compelled to agree with myself,” with the qualification that the effects of the Net can’t be measured with IQ scores. Carr’s contention is that using the Net shifts intelligence—however it’s measured–away from contemplative applications like reading a book toward utilitarian applications like locating information—and this isn’t a good thing.
His counterparts, however, think that by 2020 the Internet will have enhanced human intelligence overall. They argue that “locating information” doesn’t nearly describe what being “smart” in the Internet age means. It’s not so much locating, which is easy enough, but choosing that matters. The more information we face, the better we’ll have to become at making good choices. This application of intelligence can’t be undervalued. The only way useful knowledge can be milled from information is via well-honed discernment. Those who have it are able to drill down to the credible and substantial and determine how it “fits” in the knowledge schema. Those who don’t have it get lost in the caverns.
Other responses to the question point out that Google and similar tools make having to remember information less important. The old school of learning said that memorizing facts is at the heart of a solid education. But memorizing in the Internet age isn’t an effective use of cognitive resources, which could rather be used to select and process information.
A common theme across the responses is that regardless of the technology, people bring their natural tendencies to the table. If someone is intellectually lazy off the Net, she will be equally lazy on the Net. The question then becomes, what’s the role of technology in creating or enabling intellectual laziness? To this, many respondents agreed that the technology does enable negative personality tendencies like a lack of intellectual curiosity—but it also enables the positive ones. Someone with a native hunger to learn, for example, is going to benefit from what the Net has to offer because he’ll arrive at ways to make it work for him.
Another question asked whether literacy will be improved or diminished by 2020; 65% of the experts believe that the Internet will enhance and improve “reading, writing and the rendering of knowledge.” A fair number, however, said they think the exact opposite (32%).
I expected results on this question to be more evenly split, but again the main differences arose between those who think the definition of “literacy” is shifting, and those who want to use status quo benchmarks to measure success and failure. Those among the majority argue that there’s no question that the Net has enormously increased the amount of reading and writing most people do, and it’s difficult to see how this is a bad thing. Detractors say that Internet-born reading and writing lacks depth and shouldn’t be considered in the same category as reading books or writing substantial essays.
The problem with the detractors’ argument is, even if it’s correct (and that’s more than debatable), they are still merely poking their fingers in the levee’s cracks. No one will stop the information deluge, and no one will stop the effect it is necessarily having on the way people find, process and use information. Books and the industry that produces them are and will increasingly be forced to change. Magazines and the material they publish are being forced to change. It’s hard to escape the logical conclusion that “literacy” is also changing. Old school measurements won’t suffice in the world the Internet built.
Another question that pulled good responses from the crowd was whether we’ll be able to retain any level of anonymity on the Internet by 2020. About half of the experts said they believe users will be able to remain anonymous, while 41% said “anonymous activity will be sharply curtailed.”
One response to that question (from Susan Crawford, on faculty at the University of Michigan) especially caught my attention: “We’re moving into an increasingly authenticated and permission-based world.” She means that we’re increasingly offered incentives to drop our veil of anonymity—in effect we give our permission for a company to “know us” in return for something we perceive as valuable, like “loyalty points.” Back in the day, many people were put off by that idea, but over the last ten years or so it’s become commonplace. We seem much more comfortable with allowing organizations access to who we are and what we do as long as there’s a return coming our way.
Are we all sell-outs, or just tired of fighting a battle that could never be won? I don’t know, but I’d have to agree that the path we’re on now—and it’s likely to continue—is to offer access beyond the privacy doors more often than not. By 2020, perhaps the notion of online privacy will be as outmoded as television tubes–though I’m having a hard time convincing myself that’s a net positive (pun intended).