Blog Post

How Does the Internet Affect our Minds?

Background and Relationship to HASTAC

Our team won a DML Young Innovator grant in 2009. We got funding to create an experiment called the Digital Democracy Contest. The contest is a free game for high school social studies teachers. It teaches students how to use sites like OpenSecrets and OpenCongress to navigate campaign contributrions and congressional bill data.

The Internet as a 'Mental Prosthetic'

Our team also thinks a lot about how the internet affects our minds. How does it affect our abilities to focus, reflect and synthesize? To explore this question we founded Global Networked-Intelligence Contests (GNIC). We assume the internet is a mental prosthetic. GNIC creates contests in which people compete to use this prosthetic. We build networks of these upper echelon 'digital natives' and spread their insights through workshops and educational curriculum

Many others wonder how the internet affects our minds. In 2008 Nicholas Carr asked Is Google Making Us Stupid? A year later Jamais Cascio responded optimistically by saying something like, "No - it makes us smarter. Moreover we have to boost our intelligence in other ways (e.g. drugs and technology) to solve complex global problems." Every year the scientists and artists behind Edge.org ask themsleves a question. This year over 170 intellectuals responded to the question, "Is the Internet changing the way you think?"

History of the Idea

This conversation about technology and our minds has a deeper history. Douglas Englebart, the inventor of the computer mouse and former SRI researcher, wrote the ground breaking Augmenting Human Intellect in 1962. Like the great engineer he is, he argued we can break down our intellectual functions into atomic "basic capabilities." Then we can augment these capabilities with technologies like calculators and word processors to greatly improve a knowledge worker's output. He argued, as Cascio would 45 years later, we must augment our intelligence to solve increasingly complex global problems.

Not everyone is so optimistic. Albert Borgmann is a philosopher of technology and theology. In 1993 he argued that our attempts to create a 'hyperintelligence' would, "lead to a severe diminution of human intelligence..."

"Still, its power, if we indulge it, will be sufficient to attenuate our substance greatly. It has already begun to transform the social fabric, our commerce with reality, and the sense we have of our place in the world. At length it will lead to a disconnected, disembodied, and disoriented sort of life. The human substance will be diminished through a simultaneous diffusion and individuation of the person. Hyperintelligence allows us to diffuse our attention and action over ever more voluminous spaces. At the same time, we are shrinking to a source of instructions and finally to a point of arbitrary desires."

The artist Shay Saint John's TWENTY4SEVEN REDUX is a prescient and unnerving depiction of Borgmann's fear.

What do Students Think?

So how does the internet affect our minds? GNIC also administers a collegiate contest called the Digital Literacy Contest. This fall we hosted an essay contest at universities across the U.S. and Canada. The prompt was:

We're the first generation to grow up immersed in cyberspace. How does this change intelligence - our memories, attention spans, as well as our abilities to focus, reflect and synthesize? Specifically, shape your argument as a response to Nicholas Carrs Is Google Making Us Stupid? and Jamais Cascios Get Smarter. Argue persuasively and concisely in 300 - 500 words. Educators and policy makers need to know what our generation thinks about this issue. Tell them.

Allie Conti, a student at the University of Florida, wrote one of the best responses. You can find her essay and others' essays, as well as audio interviews with the authors, on the GNIC blog.

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