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Jimmy Wales and Other Media Experts Debate, “Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?”

14 Nov 2010

At the end of October, four authorities in the media and Internet worlds converged on Hong Kong to participate in the latest in a string of debates organized by the Asian franchise of Intelligence Squared, a British organization that calls itself “the world’s leading forum for debate”. The motion:

Is the Internet making us stupid?

Thomas Crampton, Asia-Pacific Director of 360 Digital Influence for Ogilvy, and Jeremy O’Grady, editor-in-chief of The Week and co-founder of Intelligence Squared, argued in favor. On the negative side were Kaiser Kuo, director of international communications for Baidu, and none other than Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame.

The official blurb for the event:

In a classic analogue face-to-face debate, key figures in today’s new media landscape square off on the issues: How do we define “quality of life” in the Internet age? In what ways does the Internet impact concentration, happiness and real-life social networking? What does the web mean for real innovation and creativity? How does the omnipresence of the web increase personal liberty in countries like China where there is official regulation?

Hit the jump for a full summary of the debate.

First to take the stand was Thomas Crampton, whose argument was centered on the idea that the Internet is “a distraction machine that is undermining cerebral development.”

Attention is the holy grail of learning, and the Internet is designed to destroy it.

  • There is a distinction between knowledge and access to it, and intelligence
  • 3 stages of human thinking
    • The age of fight or flight (prehistory)
    • The age of reflection (the Gutenberg era)
    • The age of distraction (the Internet)
  • Statistics galore
    • 50% of webpages visited <10 seconds
    • On average, users change windows 37 times per hour
    • Takes average user 10 seconds to identify if something is “worth reading”
    • Takes Internet-distracted office workers 15 minutes to “return to productivity”
  • Internet users become “cocky” because of their access to information
  • Emotional stupidity: “Does LOL truly mean laughter?”
  • The Internet exploits “dopamine squirts”, “engaging the monkey mind”

Crampton has actually published a full overview of his case for the debate, with extensive notes and citations. Definitely worth a read — that is, if you have the attention span for it.

Next up was Kaiser Kuo (photo by Robert Scoble), who compared Crampton to “a memorizer of the Gilgamesh epic bemoaning the spread of cuneiform.”

It’s like being sad that we still have these appendices and can’t digest cellulose. Oh, boo-freaking-hoo.”

  • Internet as platform for collaboration, debate, discussion “that elevates our civilization”
  • Internet represents a “broadening to humanity of intelligence”
  • The scope of the motion: “We need a more inclusive ‘us’, not just a bunch of Brits or Americans.”
  • Internet cultivates the kinds of intelligence appropriate for the future
    • “Ability to rapidly assimilate and contextualize inputs of information”
    • “Ability to discern the wheat from the chaff” (“information triage”)
    • “Ability to block out distraction”

      “They [the youth] are not multitasking. I don’t believe in multitasking. What they’re doing is serial processing – these guys are quadcore processors, while I’m still working on a goddamn 186.”

Next, Jeremy O’Grady contrasted the culture of learning in the Internet world with that of booklearning to indicate how “civilization is getting dumber and dumber.”

We’re doomed to lose… if the Internet has made you all stupid, then you will be stupid enough to vote for these guys.

  • Digital “immigrants” raised on books benefit, but “natives” do not
  • “African Conundrum” – success of the net dependent on booklearning parents/teachers
  • “Modern life as a whole is crisscrossed with temptations to stupidity.”
  • Intelligence based on a “culture of repose, tranquility, quietude”
  • Enlightenment values – reason is not natural; progress is not always good
  • Internet culture promotes finding answers by “looking for data without understanding”

    Isaac Newton once said, ‘If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ The Internet makes us sit on the soft buttocks of giants.

Finally, the star of the night: Jimmy Wales argued for educational benefits of the Internet, based on his own experiences with the hugely successful online projects of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Everyone uses Wikipedia. *audience laughs* Well, it’s true.

  • Inherent spirit of stimulating dialogue and debate
  • Internet is making children smarter
    • Flynn effect – average IQ has increased by 3 points per decade
    • Distractions allow people to have “a greater facility with information”
  • Online intellectualism has fueled a “golden age of television” (LOST vs. I Love Lucy)

    We’re sustaining a new genre of entertainment just because decades ago we weren’t intellectual enough.

  • Empowerment in Dominican slums: Web helping produce great thinkers/leaders
  • Internet helps get youth excited about learning

    If this had been a lecture from the editor in chief of Encyclopedia Britannica, we would have all stabbed ourselves in the eye. We would have been bored to death… When I visit a high school, the kids act like it’s a visiting rockstar.

After the speeches, the floor was opened to the audience for a session of Q&A. Questions considered topics including emotional intelligence, misinformation of the Internet, and the effect of censorship on intelligence. The juiciest responses are collected below:

Jimmy Wales on the Internet and social intelligence:

Computer games have moved from single-player to these massively multiplayer online games. People in World of Warcraft – it’s a very social activity; they form guilds, they go on raids.

Jeremy O’Grady on Facebook:

It may be that Facebook is a good training for something, but I’ll be damned if I know what.

Thomas Crampton on “the end of self-critique”:

The Internet is destroying the ability of media companies to finance the investigative journalism that is so important in keeping those in power in check.

Jimmy Wales on Internet censorship in China:

The Chinese government – I think they no longer believe they have the ability to control the flow of information… but what they are doing very effectively is having a chilling effect on conversation within China… stopping people from speaking and having open conversations, and that’s bad.

As with all Intelligence Squared events, the evening’s debate began and concluded with voting by members of the audience. Before the debate, 108 were in favor of the motion while 190 were against it (not including abstentions). In the final tally, 177 were now convinced that the Internet was making us stupid, and 180 were not.

While Team Interwebs pulled through in the end, it was the Crampton-O’Grady duo that had actually performed better during the debate. However, judging by how close the final vote was, it is evident that the intellectual merit of the Internet will continue to be a contentious issue in the continuing future.

What do you think? Is the Internet making us stupid? Leave your comments below!

One Comment leave one →
  1. 14 Nov 2010 3:36 PM

    Funny enough, I do agree with Kaiser Kuo: the people involved to talk about the “internet” are mostly American or English native.
    The other point concerns the data used by Thomas: one added to another gives a rationale to his point of view. And it’s a good deal.
    But on the other side, isn’t it a good thing that people move faster from one place to another? Like when you receive a Speed Rabbit Pizza ad: you throw it away without reading. Is that weird?
    but hey, great debate btw.

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