Does the Internet Make You Smarter?

Digital media have made the creation and sharing of text, sound, and pictures cheap and global. But most people making use of it produce nothing more than an endless stream of mediocrity, which has lead to alarmed predictions of incipient intellectual collapse.

Of course, that's what always happens with an increase in access to media. As Gutenberg's press spread through Europe, it came with a flood of contemporary literature, most of it mediocre. But the eventual result was new norms caused by abundant literature -- novels, newspapers, scientific journals, and the separation of fiction and non-fiction, all of which had the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the intellectual range of society.

Clay Shirkey, writing in The Wall Street Journal, opines:

“We are living through a similar explosion of publishing capability today ... Wikipedia took the idea of peer review and applied it to volunteers on a global scale, becoming the most important English reference work in less than 10 years ... Similarly, open source software, created without managerial control of the workers or ownership of the product, has been critical to the spread of the Web.”

Reading is not a natural act; neither is using a computer. Literate societies invest extraordinary resources training children to read. Now is the time to determine what response should shape the use of digital tools.

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