That provocative question splashed across the cover of the Atlantic Monthly last summer, headlining a story penned by controversial technology analyst and pundit Nicholas Carr, who argued that the climate of instant information and supreme distraction that permeates the Web has chipped away at the more focused, intellectual pursuits like reading a book.
Fast forward to today, and some of the leaders of the industry would beg to differ. A new poll by the Pew Internet and American Life Project canvassing predictions for the Internet in 2020 found that 76 percent of respondents said that increasing usage of the Internet (and presumably Google) will help people make better choices, ultimately enhancing human intelligence.
Pew surveyed nearly 900 Internet experts, scholars and business leaders for its Future of the Internet poll, which it conducted in partnership with Elon University. Pew Research Director Lee Rainie is scheduled to present the findings of the survey at a conference today in San Diego.
The survey organized its questions in what it called “tension pairs,” asking participants to cast their vote for one side of a binary query. So, on the intelligence issue, for instance, respondents explained why they agreed with the assertion:
“By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid.”
“By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.”
In addition to the hundreds of other individuals around the world that Pew queries, the researchers gave Google and Carr a chance to speak for themselves.
“Google will make us more informed,” said Hal Varian, chief economist for Google. “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.”
Asked the same question, Carr didn’t exactly disagree with Varian, but he reminded the researchers that he is worried about a different sort of intelligence falling by the wayside.
“I feel compelled to agree with myself,” Carr said. “But I would add that the Net’s effect on our intellectual lives will not be measured simply by average IQ scores. What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a 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.”
The experts were more evenly split on the impact the Internet will have on people’s ability to read and write.
Sixty-five percent (65%) of respondents said that by 2020, increased Internet usage will have improved people’s reading and writing abilities, compared to the 32 percent who expect it to go the other way and the 3 percent who didn’t respond.
The survey also tackled issues of governance, asking respondents for their thoughts on the future of the open Internet. Sixty-one percent (61%) said they expected the Net would remain generally unfettered, allowing end-to-end communications to travel without disruptions as the technology’s architects envisioned. At the same time, several respondents expressed concern that service providers and foreign governments were increasingly moving to set up barriers to restrict the free flow of information on the Net.
One of the more telling comments came from Susan Crawford. She recently left the Obama administration after helping draft its technology policy, which made Net neutrality a high priority, and talked up the importance of Internet freedom in restrictive environments such as China. But when asked by Pew, Crawford seemed to suggest that the administration could be wavering in its commitment to the open Internet.
“The locked-down future is more realistic as things stand now,” she said. “We’ve got a very cautious government, an international movement towards greater control and a pliant public. I wish this wasn’t the case.”
Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.