Does Google make people stupider?
That was the question that the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in conjunction with Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center, asked a group of Internet "experts," who largely concluded that the popular search engine does not, in fact, make people stupid.
Some 76 percent of the 895 experts polled for the study believed that, by 2020, people's use of the Internet and its access to massive amounts of information will allow them to "become smarter and make better choices...Google does not make us stupid."
Around 21 percent thought that, by 2020, people's Internet use would not enhance their intelligence and may even lower the IQs of frequent users. "Google makes us stupid," those experts agreed.
Another 2 percent did not respond to the survey, which was opt-in.
The numbers were slightly different among the subset of 371 experts who regularly participate in Pew Internet & American Life Project surveys. In that instance, some 81 percent of experts agreed with the "Google does not make us stupid" statement, while 16 percent sided with "Google makes us stupid," and 4 percent chose to not respond.
The impetus for the survey apparently came from a summer 2009 article in the Atlantic Monthly, in which author Nicholas Carr suggested that the ease of browsing and searching on the Web was steadily degrading people's ability to concentrate and think.
Carr was one of the experts asked by the project to offer their views "of the Internet's influence on the future of human intelligence in 2020-what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in the way human intellect evolves?" That question apparently drew hundreds of responses from those surveyed, a broad selection of which can be found here.
"The Net's effect on our intellectual lives will not be measured simply by average IQ scores," Nicholas Carr wrote in response. "What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking."
A Google staffer offered Pew a retort to Carr's viewpoint.
"Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist," Peter Norvig, Google Research Director, wrote. "I would also like to say that Carr has it mostly backwards when he says that Google is built on the principles of Taylorism [the institution of time-management and worker-activity standards in industrial settings]."
While Taylorism supposedly places the balance of power on management, Norvig continues, "Google does the opposite, shifting responsibility from management to the worker, encouraging creativity in each job, and encouraging workers to shift among many different roles in their career." Making sense of Google's data, he insists, requires creativity and knowledge, as well as connections to other individuals.
In a slightly different take, Google chief economist Hal Varian told Pew that "Google will make us more informed. The smartest person in the world could well be behind a plow in China or India. Providing universal access to information will allow such people to realize their full potential, providing benefits to the entire world."