Debate Research: The Internet is Making Us Stupid

The Internet, I recently argued, is making us stupid.

This may seem a strange stance for someone who blogs and runs a social media team, but I put forward this point of view in a debate organized by Intelligence Squared in Hong Kong.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder, and Kaiser Kuo, now working at Chinese Internet giant Baidu, argued against myself and Jeremy O’Grady, the founding editor of The Week and founder of Intelligence Squared. The inimitable Joanne Ooi was moderator.

A fully sold out room of 500 people turned up for the debate, posing excellent and challenging questions for both sides.

Having started out a skeptic, I now see strength in the arguments that the Internet diminishes our depth of thinking.

Afterwards, a number of people asked for references to research and ideas. I am indebted to many for the ideas and do hope that the below list of links helps foster further discussion on this important topic.

One great starting point to anyone looking at this issue is the article written by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic.

I have summarized some of my arguments in an article for Ad Age (Link coming as soon as they publish it). Below is an Internet-based bibliography of useful reading that I am still updating.

People skim read the Internet

Weinreich’s Study: Exploring Three Aspects of Web Navigation

  • Description: 4 German researchers conducted a long-term web browsing study from 2004 to 2005
  • Method: 25 volunteers participated in the Web logging study. Two 1.5 hour interviews at the beginning and end of the study were used to gather demographical data and information on general use, but also to confirm some interpretations of the captured data, e.g. concerning the use of multiple windows.

Stats from the study:

  • 25% of web pages are displayed for less than 4 seconds
  • 52% of all visits are shorter than 10 seconds
  • Only about 11% of all visits last more than 2 minutes

Table 1: Comparison chart of three long-term studies

Catledge & Pitkow Tauscher & Greenberg This Study
Time of study 1994 1995-1996 2004-2005
No. of users 107 23 25
Length (days) 21 35-42 52-195, (avg = 105)
No. of visits 31,134 84,841 137,272
Recurrence rate 61% 58% 45.

NYT Article: Attached to Technology and Paying a Price

  • At work, computer users shift windows nearly 37 times an hour and people consume 3 times as much information each day as they did in 1960

Roger Bohn and James Short: How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers

  • Description: 2009 research on information consumption on US consumers
  • Results: At home, people consume an average of 12 hours of media a day, with 1 hour of TV and Internet together counting as 2 hours. In 1960, the average was 5 hours a day

Even academics skim read the Internet (but think they don’t)

David Nicholas’ Study: Viewing and Reading Behavior in a Virtual Environment

  • Description: Researchers from the US compared the time spent reading a paper-based academic article versus the online equivalent in 2008
  • Method: The paper reviews the web logs of a number of electronic journal libraries including OhioLINK and ScienceDirect using Deep Log Analysis, which is a more sophisticated form of transactional log analysis. The frequency, characteristics and diversity of full-text viewing are examined. The article also features an investigation into the time spent online viewing full-text articles in order to get a clearer understanding of the significance of full-text viewing, especially in regard to reading.
  • Participants: The data upon which the paper is largely based come from CIBER’s Virtual Scholar programme, an investigation into the information seeking behavior of academics. The programme has chronicled the behavior of several hundred thousand scholars, in connection with a variety of digital journal libraries.


  • A very large proportion of online full-text views were extremely brief and possibly cursory
  • Average reading time for 10+ page printed academic paper = 22 – 45 minutes
  • Average reading time for online version = 74 seconds
  • Yet academics reported they spent 5-15 mins reading the online versions while in fact they didn’t

Decisions about knowledge are made in snap judgment (in about 10 seconds)

Kelly & Belkin Study: Reading Time, Scrolling and Interaction: Exploring Implicit Sources of User Preferences for Relevance Feedback During Interactive Information Retrieval

[Click for PDF]

  • Method: A total of 36 volunteers, recruited from the Rutgers community, participated in the original project. Data from only the first 6 subjects are included in this report. Each subject conducted six searches. A total of 561 documents were opened by these 6 subjects. The instructions to the subjects were that for each search, they should find and save documents which identified the different instances or aspects of the specified topic. Researchers then analyzed several pieces of data including time spent reading a document, scrolling and amount of interaction with a document.
  • Results: Users usually spent approximately 10 seconds viewing documents that they eventually identified as relevant or otherwise

People find it difficult to concentrate being always “plugged-in”

A nationwide survey conducted from May 6-9 in the US: phone interviews were conducted with 855 adults, of whom 726 said they used a personal computer or had a smartphone. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for all adults and 4 percentage points for computer and smartphone users.

  • Younger people are particularly affected: almost 30% of those under 45 said the use of these devices made it harder to focus, while less than 10 percent of older users agreed
  • People seem to find it hard to shut down after work. Almost 40% check work e-mail after hours or on vacation.
  • Some people can’t imagine living without their computers. About 1/3 of those polled said they couldn’t, while 65% said they either probably or definitely could get along without their PCs.
  • 1 in 7 married respondents said the use of these devices was causing them to see less of their spouses. And 1 in 10 said they spent less time with their children under 18.

Lauren Emberson’s Cell Phone Study

Overhearing someone on a cell-phone, a halfalogue, results in decreased performance on cognitive tasks because less-predictable speech results in more distraction for a listener engaged in other tasks

  • Method: two studies conducted exclusively on 41 college undergraduates. In the first study, 24 undergrads were seated in front of a computer and told they were going to complete two tasks that demanded their complete and undivided attention: One involved tracking a moving dot with the computer mouse, and the other involved responding to letters presented on the computer screen. They were given 1 min of practice with each of these tasks in silence. They were then instructed that they would be completing these tasks a number of times and would sometimes hear speech from the two computer speakers situated on either side of the monitor. Participants were asked to focus their attention on the tasks.
  • Results showed significant differences in a person’s ability to concentrate on both tasks at hand when listening to a halfalogue as opposed to silence, a monologue, or a complete two-sided conversation. Since the researchers reasoned this effect may be caused by the unpredictability of the sounds of talking, they conducted a second experiment that made the halfalogue conversation filtered and incomprehensible. They found that it isn’t the mere acoustic unpredictability itself — speech comprehension is necessary in order to reduce a person’s attention to the task at hand.

People take an average of 10-15 minutes to recover from interruption and distraction

Microsoft Study: Eric Horvitz and Shamsi T. Iqbal

[Click for PDF]

  • Method: Researchers performed a field study of the computing activities of 27 users over a two-week period, exploring the suspension, recovery, and resumption of tasks in participants’ natural work settings. We found that participants spent on average nearly 10 minutes on switches caused by alerts, and spent on average another 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the type of interruption) before returning to focused activity on the disrupted task
  • Results: study showed that it took office workers 10-15 minutes to return to an interrupted task after responding to a distraction like an instant message

Given the increased level of distraction, suddenly humans can no longer focus. Our lower mind gets distracted batting away “digital rocks and saber tooth tigers”.

MAIN ARGUMENT (1) – Increased Level of Distraction

With the arrival of the Internet, humans have developed the perfect medium for distraction:

Video here, link there, oops! A tweet, growl coming up with mail

No longer read books

ADHD on the rise – medications usage increases

  • Ritalin is the most popular drug in the methylphenidate family of pharmaceuticals prescribed to treat ADHD in children. Ritalin usage began to take off around 1990 and both legal and illegal uses have increased significantly since then, especially in the US. A 2005 report by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America states that 10 percent of American teenagers (2.3 million young people) admit to using the prescription drug Ritalin or Adderall without a doctor’s order.
  • Reason for Increased Usage: The illegal use of Ritalin and other methylphenidates among high school and college students began to rise in the late 1990s.
    • Students used the drug at parties, often snorting it to get a quick high.
    • By the early 2000s, reports were surfacing of high school and college students using Ritalin for academic purposes. Users claim the drug helps them stay awake and focus during late-night study sessions or while writing essays.
    • Universities with high academic standards tend to have higher rates of illegal prescription drug use.

Walrus Magazine Article: Driven to Distraction

  • “If we now find ourselves adrift in an ocean of information, our mental state increasingly resembles the slivered surface of a melting glacier.”
  • Cognitive overload similar to insufficient RAM: limit to the amount of info human beings can process at one time (Gorilla experiment)
  • A 1998 study pointed out that when people are engaged in highly familiar or routine tasks — the things we say we can do in our sleep — they become vulnerable to distraction-related errors because the brain is, essentially, on autopilot and doesn’t recover well when it is called on to respond to information that is unpredictable, even casual conversation.
  • NASA study on cockpit distractions concluded that people are able to perform two tasks concurrently only in limited circumstances, even if they are skillful in performing each task separately
    • That’s why pilots are required to keep banter to a minimum.
  • Surfing, reading, forgetting, repeating”

Some may argue that they are very apt at handling different tasks, the so-called multi-taskers. However, the “illusion of attention” could be your archenemy…

MAIN ARGUMENT (2) – Multitasking Myth & The Illusion of Attention

University of Utah research: fewer than 3% of the population are so-called super-taskers who can easily juggle multiple sources of information

  • Method: 200 adults (age s 18-43) participated in a driving simulation. The simulation mimicked ordinary traffic – every now and then, something required them to slow down to avoid hitting the car in front of them. At times, the participants focused fully on driving, at other times, they were also holding a phone conversation.
  • Results: 97.5% of participants were substantially worse drivers when on the phone. The other 2.5% did the same or better when multitasking.
  • Cell-phone study: Several large-scale, naturalistic driving studies (using sophisticated cameras and instrumentation in participants’ personal vehicles) conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) showing:
    • A car driver dialing a cell phone is 2.8 times more likely to get into a crash than a non-distracted driver.
    • A driver reaching for a cell phone or any other electronic device is 1.4 times more likely to experience a car crash.
    • A car driver talking on their phone is 1.3 times more likely to get into an accident.
    • A truck driver texting while driving is 23.2 times more likely to get into an accident than a trucker paying full attention to the road.
    • A truck driver dialing a cell is 5.9 times more likely to crash.
    • A trucker reaching for a phone or other device is 6.7 times more likely to experience a truck accident.
    • For every 6 seconds of drive time, a driver sending or receiving a text message spends 4.6 of those seconds with their eyes off the road. This makes texting the most distracting of all cell phone related tasks.
    • Find detailed statistics here.

Clifford Nass’ Stanford Study: Cognitive Control in Media Multitasker

  • Method: The researchers developed a questionnaire-based media multitasking index to determine the mean number of media a person simultaneously consumes. The participants were then categorized into heavy media multi-taskers (HMMs) or light media multi-taskers (LMMs) on this index. Then, they examined these groups’ abilities on cognitive control abilities including:
    • Attention to environmental stimuli
    • The holding and manipulation of stimuli into working memory
    • Control of responses to stimuli and tasks
  • Results showed that HMMs are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that HMMs performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set
  • Intensive multi-taskers are “suckers for irrelevancy” with significantly less control over their working memory
  • Even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist

[Counter Study] Gary Small’s Study: Your Brain on Google: Patterns od Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching [PDF]

  • Experienced surfers showed more brain activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with complex reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making
  • Internet does enhance brain circuitry in “digital immigrants” à hold promise for older people’s potential to enhance brainpower through the use of technology
  • BUT THE KEY IS: more brain activity is not necessarily better brain activity
  • Participants: The authors studied 24 subjects (age, 55–76 years) who were neurologically normal, of whom 12 had minimal Internet search engine experience (Net Naive group) and 12 had more extensive experience (Net Savvy group). The mean age and level of education were similar in the two groups.
  • Measurements: Patterns of brain activation during functional MRI scanning were determined while subjects performed a novel Internet search task, or a control task of reading text on a computer screen formatted to simulate the prototypic layout of a printed book, where the content was matched in all respects, in comparison with a non-text control task.
  • Results: The text reading task activated brain regions controlling language, reading, memory, and visual abilities, and both the magnitude and the extent of brain activation were similar in the Net Naive and Net Savvy groups. During the Internet search task, the Net Naive group showed an activation pattern similar to that of their text reading task, whereas the Net Savvy group demonstrated significant increases in signal intensity in additional regions controlling decision making, complex reasoning, and vision. Internet searching was associated with a more than twofold increase in the extent of activation in the major regional clusters in the Net Savvy group compared with the Net Naive group
  • Conclusion: Although the present findings must be interpreted cautiously in light of the exploratory design of this study, they suggest that Internet searching may engage a greater extent of neural circuitry not activated while reading text pages but only in people with prior computer and Internet search experience. These observations suggest that in middle-aged and older adults, prior experience with Internet searching may alter the brain’s responsiveness in neural circuits controlling decision making and complex reasoning

Switching costs: The taxing on mental resources when the brain reorients itself each time attention shifts

  • American Psychological Association study has found that those “time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks.”
  • When multi-tasking, the brain’s executive processor performs a two-stage operation:
  1. First is “goal shifting” (e.g., shifting from editing a text file to checking email)
  2. Second is “rule activation” (turning off the learned rules for editing on a word processing program and turning on the rules for managing the email program that’s being used)
  • According to the APA, Joshua Rubinstein, a psychologist with the US Federal Aviation Administration, determined that “rule activation itself takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second — which can add up when people switch back and forth repeatedly between tasks. Thus, multi-tasking may seem more efficient on the surface, but may actually take more time in the end.”

Linear Text:

  • 2001 Canadian study: 2 researchers asked 70 participant to read “The Demon Lover” – those reading in traditional linear text format read faster while those reading in hyperlink format found it 7 times more confusing
  • Erping Zhu: asked participants to read a passage of digital prose but varied the number of links appearing in it. Then gave a multiple-choice quiz and had them write a summary. She found that comprehension declined as the number of links increased, whether or not people clicked on them

The “multitasking myth” is further supported by the fact that people’s short-term memories can only hold up to 7 items at a time, this leads us to our third point…

MAIN ARGUMENT (3) – Working Memory Overload

Diminish concentration level: “The internet seizes our attention only to scramble it”

Our short-term memory is a thimble that fills up and is carried to our longer-term memory

Cognitive overload / penalty: overwhelming amount of information flowing into the “working memory”

John Sweller’s Book: Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design

  • “Cognitive load” theory to study intellectual performance
    • Limited working memory (conscious): humans are only able to deal with 2 or 3 items of information simultaneously when required to process rather than merely hold information. Any interactions between elements held in working memory require capacity, reducing the number of elements that can be dealt with simultaneously
    • Unlimited long-term memory (unconscious): Chess experiments show that the major factor that distinguishes novice from expert problem solvers was not knowledge of sophisticated, general problem-solving strategies but, rather, knowledge of an enormous number of problem states and their associated moves
    • The process of learning requires working memory to be actively engaged in the comprehension and processing of material to encode information into long term memory
    • If the resources of working memory are exceeded then learning will be ineffective
  • Switching costs pile on à breaks concentration and burdens working memory à cognitive penalty
  • Constant digital stimulation is worst for children who “already struggle to set priorities and resist impulses”

The over-abundance of information and easy answers as a result of the Internet could be just another example of the “paradigm shift” …

MAIN ARGUMENT (4) – “Paradigm Shift” as opposed to “Extension to Brain”

Thomas Kuhn “The Structure of Scientific Revolution” (1962)

  • Popularized the term “paradigm” and “paradigm shift” which could cause one to see the same information in an entirely different way.
  • A scientific revolution occurs when scientists encounter anomalies, which cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm. The paradigm is based on features of landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them.
  • When enough significant anomalies have accrued against a current paradigm, the scientific discipline is thrown into a state of crisis during which new ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tried. Eventually a new paradigm is formed, which gains its own new followers, and an intellectual “battle” takes place between the followers of the new paradigm and the hold-outs of the old paradigm.
  • Example: Copernican Revolution of astronomy shift
    • Copernicus’ cosmology of sun being the center lacked credibility, but after Galileo’s new idea concerning motion and Kepler’s cosmology (law of equal areas), credibility increased and together, they changed the prevailing perceptions of the scientific community. Later, Newton showed that Kepler’s three laws could all be derived from a single theory of motion and planetary motion. Newton solidified and unified the paradigm shift that Galileo and Kepler had initiated.

Over-abundance of information further leads to the loss of depth in thinking, which is the basis of creativity. Must draw distinction between the ability to “find answers” vs. the ability to “create answers”…

MAIN ARGUMENT (5) – There is the “loss of depth in thinking & the ability to contemplate and introspect, which is the highest level of human thinking and essential to creativity”

Overabundance of answers is reducing our intellect: In the era of cheap oil, cars are inefficient. In the era of easy answers, we get intellectually lazy

  • Overwhelmed with information, so unable to process or assess
  • Lazy in judgment, thus end up making bad decisions that could be stupid
  • We have more answers than ever before, which is different from the ability to derive or manufacture these answers

Information red-tape / Information noise:

  • Internet induces constant distractions and interruptions that prevent decision-making and turn people into scattered and superficial thinkers
  • Info turns to noise: people get BORED because they are lazy in judgment and creativity due to info overload, thus no new info is created, thus “entropic information society” instead of “progressive information society”
    • Orrin Klapp’s book: boredom as an indicator of overloads of information because constant inundation with information has led to the attrition of meaning
    • Redundancy and noise have replaced resonance and variety in the modern world
    • The more information you have, the more easy answers you have, the less intellectually challenged you will be. This leads to boredom. Instead of getting inspired to create, we get bored
  • The power of “frustrated curiosity”: diminishing intellectual curiosity because the question “why” is not answered / presented: Twitter 140-word-limit example, etc.
  • Eric Kandel, a Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist, writes “only when we pay close attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory”
  • Attention is the “HOLY GRAIL” of memory and learning

Abundance of information creates the scenario of “collective intelligence” vs. “individual stupidity”…

“Collective Intelligence” vs. “Individual Stupidity”: We stand on the shoulders of giant with plentiful information, but all we have done is raise the baseline intelligence

“Individual Stupidity” characterized by “Utilitarian Intelligence”: Internet’s effect on intellectual capacity will not be measured simply by average IQ scores/tests

  • Internet shifts the emphasis on “meditative or contemplative intelligence” to “utilitarian intelligence”
  • In this process of zipping among lots of bits of information, people lose the depth in thinking

“Utilitarian Intelligence” caused by “Cognitive Trade-off”:

Patricia Greenfield’s Study: Technology and Informal Education: What Is Taught, What Is Learned

  • Reviewed more than 40 studies of the effects of various types of media on intelligence and learning ability
  • “Every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others” à Internet stimulates the development of visual-spatial skills but those gains go hand in hand with a weakening of the capacity for “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

Elias Aboujaoude’s Study: Internet Addiction, Feel Experts, can Cause People to Become More Impulsive, Impatient and Even Narcissistic: excessive use of the internet, cell phones and other technologies can lead to impatience, forgetfulness and even narcissism

  • “It may be that the immediacy of the Internet, the efficiency of the iPhone and the anonymity of the chat room that change the core of who we are.”
  • The vast storage available in email and on the Internet is preventing people from letting go, causing people to retain many old and unnecessary memories at the expense of making new ones

People become extremely talented “searchers” rather than “creators”…

Finding answers vs. Creating answers:

Howard & Massanari: Learning to Search and Searching to Learn

  • Research applied questionnaires to analyze data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project 2000 and 2004 surveys. Findings suggest the increasing trend of Internet users searching for “specific answers” as opposed to “casual browsing”. Results also show that a large proportion of even the new Internet users in 2000 and 2004 were doing focused searches online. Moreover, a few years of Internet experience seems to make people more sophisticated searchers, in terms of the likelihood that they will direct their queries to search engines, and in their awareness of some of the politics and biases of search engines.

People become “skilled hunter/gatherers” rather than innovators…

“Medium Became the Message”

  • Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Message): message is controlled by technology and people’s “senses” are affected by media technologies, which ultimately alter the perception of “reality”
  • People are becoming “skilled hunters” for content rather than digesting information
  • Michael Merzenich (Neuroscience, UCSF): brains are being “massively remodeled”
    • The use of a new medium creates a different brain à neural circuits respond extensively and quickly to new experiences
    • Long-term effect on the quality of intellectual lives could be “deadly”

Not only are people lose the flair of creativity, but they also face problems with empathy…

MAIN ARGUMENT (6) – Emotional Stupidity

Patricia Greenfield’s talk: do you feel the same about rescuing a princess in video games versus rescuing a princess in a novel?

Focus on the “process” in video games but the actual “content” (princess herself) in the novel

    No eye contact or relating to one-another in a human manner

    In a few seconds of human contact, humans can make one-another at ease

    Empathy: Internet diminishes empathy by slicing engagement into tiny fragments

    • Heavy technology could diminish empathy by limiting how much people engage with each other, even in the same room

    Can LOL transmit with the same power as real laughter?

    Create concern/panic by mentioning “your children’s future”

    Why does the Internet exert such an attractive force on these “digital natives”? Scientifically, this relates back to our instinct since our cro-magnon stage in human development path…

    MAIN ARGUMENT (7) – Dopamine Squirt & Internet Addiction

    Addiction (Dopamine Pursuit) à juggling email, phone calls and other incoming info can induce “primitive impulse” to immediate opportunities/threats that provokes a “dopamine squirt” which triggers addiction

    Walrus Magazine Article: Driven to Distraction

    • Kathy Sierra is a Boulder, Colorado-based educator who designed and created the bestselling “Head First” software-development guides, which are based on neuroscience research about cognition and human memory. In developing her approach, she pored over evidence that revealed how the human brain, from an evolutionary point of view, remains a machine programmed primarily to look out for its owner’s survival, like the threat of an approaching predator.
    • “Our brain cares about things that are very different than the conscious mind wants to learn.” It is geared to respond to novel, surprising, or terrifying emotional and sensory stimuli. The fast-paced, visually arousing hit of video games is intensely captivating for the human brain, whereas the vast amount of text found on websites, blogs, and databases tends to wash over us.

    Neurologist Nora Volkow: technology is rewiring brains à comparing the lure of digital stimulation to drugs and alcohol as well as food and sex

    Kimberly Young’s Study: Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Disorder

    • Addictive nature of online technology is similar to eating disorders
    • Method: this study developed a brief eight-item questionnaire referred to as a Diagnostic Questionnaire (DQ) which modified criteria for pathological gambling to provide a screening instrument for addictive Internet use. All participants were volunteers. Telephone respondents were administered the survey verbally at an arranged interview time. Electronic answers were sent in a text file directly to the principal investigator’s electronic mailbox for analysis. Respondents who answered “yes” to five or more of the criteria were classified as addicted Internet users for inclusion in this study. A total of 605 surveys in a three month period were collected with 596 valid responses that were classified from the DQ as 396 Dependents and 100 Non-Dependents. A sample of Dependents includes 157 males and 239 females. Mean ages were 29 for males and 43 for females.

    Psychologist Emily Pronin: people race from links to links because brains are conditioned to associate novelty with pleasure

    “Entertainment itch”: mobile software developers compete to fill small bits of free time

    • Research shows mobile games are typically played for 6.3 minutes or shorter

    Addict-o-meter: Sites like Net Addiction offer self–assessment tests to determine if technology has become a drug

    The easy accessibility to information/answers is also making people think that they are smarter than they really are. In a sense, we are becoming more cocky…

    MAIN ARGUMENT (8) – False Confidence: Internet has made people more cocky rather than intelligence

    Rozenblit & Keil (2002): The Misunderstood Limits of Folk Science: An Illusion of Explanatory Depth

    • Abstract: People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth. The illusion is far stronger for explanatory knowledge than many other kinds of knowledge, such as that for facts, procedures or narratives.
    • Methods: participants performed a series of tasks designed to show that people’s initial confidence in their explanatory knowledge will drop significantly after they are asked to actually retrieve that knowledge.
      • First, participants were given a list of objects (e.g., a speedometer and a sewing machine), and asked to rate their confidence in their knowledge of how those items worked. Next, they were asked to give detailed descriptions of how the objects worked, and were then asked to rate their confidence in their knowledge of the objects again. If that wasn’t enough to shake their confidence, they were then given several questions about the objects, and rated their knowledge again. Finally, they were given explanations of how the objects worked, and were asked to rate their initial knowledge (i.e., pre-explanation knowledge) and their current (post-explanation) knowledge.
    • Results: The researchers then graphed the rating results and showed that the participants’ initial ratings were significantly higher than their subsequent ratings, and their confidence in their explanatory knowledge only rose again after reading a detailed explanation. 3 main factors:
      • Confusing environmental support with representation: Often, when we need to think about how something works, we have it right in front of it, and can observe it. This is what Rozenblit and Keil refer to as “environmental support.” They argue that we mistakenly believe the explanatory knowledge is in our heads because we can explain it when the object is right in front of us. Only when we’re forced to explain it without the object in front of us do we realize how little we know about it. This factor would explain the finding that the illusion of explanatory depth is greater for objects with many visible parts.
      • Levels of analysis confusion: Rozenblit and Keil argue that people tend to have knowledge at one level of explanation (e.g., pressing the flusher causing the water to drain and then fill up again”), and this causes them to mistakenly believe that they have knowledge at the other levels of explanation when they really don’t. This explains why they don’t exhibit the illusion of depth for facts and stories. Facts and stories generally only involve a few causal relations (some facts might not involve any) that can be described at one level of explanation, and thus it’s more difficult to mistakenly believe we have explanatory knowledge that we don’t actually have.
      • Indeterminate end state: Because there are many different levels at which we can explain the functioning of many objects, it can be difficult to know when we have enough knowledge to explain how those objects work. Rozenblit and Keil argue that this may lead people to be overconfident in their knowledge of such objects. This also explains why story knowledge is easier to estimate. Stories have a beginning and an end, making it easier to determine when we know enough to explain them.

    Chabris and Simon’s study: people’s confidence in their knowledge and abilities are falsely boosted

    • On demand access to info may trick people into mistaking knowledge they could obtain for knowledge they already have and can act upon à neglect the acquisition of true knowledge
    • The more different ways technology gives people to multi-task, the more chances people have to succumb to an illusion of attention

    Pancake people spread wide and thin

    More examples of Internet/technologies’ concerning effects on people (Emphasize “CHILD DEVELOPMENT”)…

    Examples of Technology’s negative effect on people

    Sophisticated technology could cause people to lose the intellectual capacity to remember vast amount of information à lose structures of reference

    “Character amnesia” in China and Japan induced by the use of electronic input systems

    • Forgetting how to write could eventually affect reading ability

    Christof van Nimwegen’s study on effective user interfaces for computer systems:

    • People with the system that requires users to internalize the knowledge needed to solve a puzzle learned much more than people with helpful software

    Information Behavior of the Researcher of the Future 2008 deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, flicking behaviors in digital libraries. Society is dumbing down


    Vigdor & Ladd Study: The Reality of ICT Doesn’t Live Up to its Potential: finds introduction of high-speed internet is:

    • Associated with significantly lower math and reading scores in middle grades
    • Associated with widening racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps
    • The challenge of digital media in classrooms
      • “Young people who multitask can complete the task more rapidly, but they make more errors, so we’re becoming faster but sloppier when we multi-task.”

    Parenthood / child-development: fallacy of multi-tasking between technology and child-caring

    • Sherry Turkle’s study (5 years and 300 interviews): feelings of hurt, jealousy and competition are widespread among children with parents that use technology heavily
    • Frederick Zimmerman’s study: technologies may enable parents to spend more time at home, which may in turn results in less, rather than more, quality time overall

    Child today vs. Child of previous era

    • A youngster today would fail at old-style school, and vice-versa (nobody does homework alone)
    • In terms of collaboration Stanford professor Who do you want on your team: “I don’t want flakes on my team”; How do you want to be seen: “I want to be seen as funny”

    CONCLUSION – After all, this debate melts down to the emphasis on “CONTENT” (Internet makes us stupid) versus “PROCESS” (Internet makes us smart). This could well be a “paradigm shift” – you just don’t know it yet…


    Counter: Internet is an extension of human intelligence if used properly.

    BUT: Internet is designed to distract (example of the Time article embedded with numerous hyperlinks)

    Counter: Internet as of now may be distracting, but the next generation will fix this problem

    BUT: First of, we are talking about the Internet NOW. Secondly, Bill Gates said the problem of spam would be solved within two years at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2004. So there, watch what you say!

    Counter: Medium is an extension, rather than hindrance, of our mind/intelligence

    BUT: Thomas Kuhn’s argument of “paradigm shifts”

    Counter: What about online universities and the increasing trend of online education?

    BUT: These universities employ a fairly one-dimensional form of education that’s largely focused on the fastest, most efficient way to gaining skills to get a job as a dental assistant, an electrical engineer, etc.  Again, this goes back to finding an answer vs. creating an answer/fostering imagination and creativity.

    Counter: Extended brain: Human-computer-Internet collective power

    BUT: Extended brain is the hope, was the hope by Bill Gates that spam would disappear by 2006. Given human nature, however, they are cases of wonderful cyber-utopias.

    BUT: Thomas Kuhn’s argument of “paradigm shifts”

    Counter: What about online universities and the increasing trend of online education?

    BUT: These universities employ a fairly one-dimensional form of education that’s largely focused on the fastest, most efficient way to gaining skills to get a job as a dental assistant, an electrical engineer, etc.  Again, this goes back to finding an answer vs. creating an answer/fostering imagination and creativity.

    Counter: Extended brain: Human-computer-Internet collective power

    BUT: Extended brain is the hope, was the hope by Bill Gates that spam would disappear by 2006. Given human nature, however, they are cases of wonderful cyber-utopias.


    Provide A Solution à Time Management Service

    Rescue Time: a web-based time management and analytics tool for knowledge workers who want to be more efficient and productive.

    • Tracking time with no data entry
    • Voluntarily blocking distracting sites
    • Time Tracking Reports/Graphs

    Firefox plugins:

    • Leechblock: block users from visiting time-wasting websites (twitter, facebook, etc) during specific times of the day
    • Meetimer: logs where users spend time online, grouping it into activities, and actively discouraging time wasting

    Pomodoro Technique (Francesco Cirillo)

    • Motive – “high number of distractions and interruptions and the low level of concentration and motivation were at the root of the confusion I was feeling”
    • Pomodoro Technique


    Key Arguments

    Internet allows us to know less, to focus on what matters

    • Prolonged focus and deep reading does not necessarily equate to growth of wisdom and insight
    • “Informed decisions on demand”: ability to have conscious and temporary access to information whenever in need

    Rewiring brain as opposed to stupifying brain

    • Even Bruce Friedman, whom Carr cited as his supporter in the Atlantic piece, wrote that he believes his brain is being “rewired” but he’s getting “a little smarter”: See Article.

    Human-computer-Internet collective power

    • ACCESSIBILITY to information/knowledge

    Adaptive brain / Extended mind à “Google as an adjunct to memory”

    • Mind is constantly seeking to extend itself by grabbing onto new tools it has never experienced before and merge with them
    • Daniel Simons’ study: people extract tiny scraps of info on a need-t0-know basis because our mind is constantly seeking to extend itself and merge with new tools it has never experienced before

    Faster pace of spreading intelligent ideas – open forum for information exchange

    • The Internet actually restores reading and writing as central activities
    • The Internet helps good ideas to survive into the future

    Time-saving thus higher efficiency in terms of speed

    Main Supporting Voices

    Clay Shirky: Internet provides a valuable outlet for a growing “cognitive surplus”

    • The existence of a vast cognitive surplus drawn from a growing global community of Internet users whose enormous pool of free time and creative capacity can now be tapped in pursuit of virtually any shared goal or endeavor
    • Shirky suggests that only a small proportion of the public would need to become more civically engaged to make a big difference (ex. Wikipedia)

    Andy Clark & David Chalmers (Extended mind): mind is a system made up of the brain plus parts of its environment – mind is adapted for reaching out and making the world, including our machines, an extension of itself

    David Crystal: Texting doesn’t make people illiterate because it improves literacy as it gives people more practice in reading and writing (Book: Txting: The Gr8 Db8)

    Empirical Research

    Green & Bavelier Study (2003): Action Video Game Modifies Visual Selective Attention:

    [Click For PDF]

    • Boost Visual Selective Attention
    • Concluded after just 10 days of playing action games on computers, participants showed significant improvement with their visual focus speed between various images and tasks
    • Computers and Internet enhance mental functions including hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and the processing of visual cues
    • Method: Four experiments establish changes in different aspects of visual attention in habitual video-game players as compared with non-video-game players. In a fifth experiment, non-players trained on an action video game show marked improvement from their pre-training abilities, thereby establishing the role of playing in this effect.
    • Participants: were aged between 18 and 23 years. The (video game players) VGPs had played action video games on at least 4 days per week for a minimum of 1 h per day for the previous 6 months. The games included Grand Theft Auto3, Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Crazy Taxi, Team Fortress Classic, 007, Spider-Man, Halo, Marvel vs Capcom, Roguespeare and Super Mario Cart. The NVGPs had little, and preferably no, video-game usage in the past 6 months. Experiments 1–4 included only males; in experiment 5, both male and female NVGPs underwent training

    A British study of the way women search for medical information online indicated that an experienced Internet user can assess the trustworthiness and probable value of a Web page in a matter of seconds

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    3. James

      Argument 8 above (False Confidence) is probably the same thing as the discussions of “Artificial Stupidity”, where users of tools like statistical analysis of financial instruments continue to trust them (and disbelieve their own potential common-sense) even when they produce implausible-to-impossible results; eg appearing to have two 26-standard-deviation events in a week.

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    5. Sameisenstein

      In the corridors of my college, at least 3/4 of the “students” are texting or otherwise on their iphones. They cannot be with themselves or even with their textbooks. When not on the phone they have earplugs plugged into their orifices. They are not studying. They are not becoming acquainted with each other. They have become adjunct robotics. Their term papers are merely conbinations of random information found on the internet. The do not see any problem with that. In fact,nobody says “I'm sorry,” when found out with their plagiarism. They say, “No problem.”

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