Hey, stupid, the ‘net’s not dumb

Music on? Check. E-mail? Check. Browser? Yup. Coffee near at hand? Oh yeah, baby. Twitter and Facebook feeds activated? Yesiree. Word processor program booted? Yup. Messenger? Check.

Music on? Check.

E-mail? Check.

Browser? Yup.

Coffee near at hand? Oh yeah, baby.

Twitter and Facebook feeds activated? Yesiree.

Word processor program booted? Yup.

Messenger? Check.

Skype? Mmmhmm.

Alright, it’s time to write …

Surprise, surprise, the neural pathways of our minds are alight and changing every day. Even us creaky old guys.

That wasn’t supposed to be the case.

Just 15 years ago, scientists thought the brain stopped developing after childhood. And they thought we could only process a single stream of information at a time.

Boy, were they wrong.

Today’s scientists, building on the work of their predecessors and taking advantage of exponential leaps in technology, have learned our minds are developing throughout our lives.

We are, in fact, rewiring our minds to handle more than a single stream of data at a time. Of course, anyone who watched Lost knew that.

Just a second, the coffee needs a fillup. Back in a sec….

Now, where were we? Oh yeah, we can handle more than one data stream at a time.

It’s being billed as a good news, bad news situation.

While our minds are expanding to handle the new information, the pings and chimes that constantly demand our attention are tapping ancient chords in our DNA – the stuff of survival, or so some researchers say.

That flicker of pop-up ad you’re catching in the corner of your eye is activating your lower-brain functions, suggesting danger. A stalking tiger, perhaps. Or a wolverine (shudder).

Unwittingly, that screen flash snags your attention, jarring you from your Zen-like focus on the …. Sorry, hang on a minute, a couple of colleagues just entered the office and wanted to say good morning … Zen-like focus on the report you are writing.

The news reports are using this research to suggest the internet makes us dumb.

People are fixated on the speed of human thought rather than its depth, they say. Children can’t concentrate as well anymore, or so goes the hand-wringing.

Throughout history, it has been a common lament – repeated in the face of the television, radio and even Gutenberg’s press.

Back then, the Bible was suddenly translated into many different languages and placed in the hands of the common man.

It spurred a revolution – an explosion of literature, a lot of it bad, notes the media commentator and author Clay Shirky.

“Vulgar versions of the Bible and distracting secular writings fueled religious unrest and civic confusion, leading to claims the printing press, if not controlled, would lead to chaos and the dismemberment of European intellectual life,” he wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal.

Which, of course, it did. The influence of the Catholic Church was irrevocably shattered in Europe.

But it also gave birth to novels, peer-reviewed science, newspapers, fiction and nonfiction. The depth of society’s understanding was increased, as was its cultural output.

There were tons of crap among that early publishing. There still is, in fact. But there is also much that is laudable. And some of it is pure genius.

And this latest democratization of information – which has allowed any 14-year-old with a playing-card-size phone to publish video, audio, text, advertising, games and as-yet-to-be pioneered modes of communication – will see far better results.

Why? Because we have linked 1.8 billion people together in the same network. Families, friends and strangers separated by whole continents are sharing ideas, philosophies, and the events of their lives at a pace unseen in human history.

Think about it.

Wikipedia is a peer-reviewed reference book on virtually every subject. It is as accurate as the Encyclopedia Brittanica, perhaps more so because it is updated immediately. And it is pulled together largely by volunteers.

Similar efforts are expanding medical research, astronomy, physics, literature.

Of course, as Shirky notes, we’re also getting the “World’s Funniest Home Videos running 24/7 on YouTube,” which is probably pulling more of society’s focus than the science, medicine and philosophy stuff.

“That always happens too,” notes Shirky. “In the history of print, we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals, and complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, ‘The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.’”

Luther’s words were mirrored by Edgar Allen Poe, who whined about the evils of the rampant publishing. The appearance of “books in every branch of knowledge” presented, in his mind, a serious obstacle to the “acquisition of correct information.”

Sound familiar?

For the last couple of hundred years, we’ve taught kids to read. Literacy had to be taught, because it didn’t come naturally, unlike oral storytelling – which, by the way, reading replaced, to the consternation of somebody.

The lesson: We glorify the past as we fear the future.

But the reason people are seemingly distracted is because they are fascinated and engaged and, frankly, gorging themselves on the incredible volumes of written, audio and video information flowing across their screens every day, most of it for free.

The average person has never had such access to the collective knowledge of mankind – good and bad – and it is captivating us.

Many of us consider it information overload, which isn’t really the right way to look at it – it’s really a failure in filtering. Most people haven’t learned how to control their consumption yet.

Much of the stuff is crap, and will be forgotten. That’s always the way it is. But a ton of it is good stuff too. And that will germinate and grow and will become lodged in the expanding neurons of our everchanging minds.

The internet is not making us dumber.

It has sparked a revolution in society, which is always unsettling and provokes fear.

Things are changing. Fast.

But people learn, and society eventually adapts to the change.

The kids who grow up surrounded by these powerful new tools won’t easily be intimidated by them. They will pick them up and will fashion new, deeper and infinitely cooler ways of communicating, they will develop new art forms – perhaps strange new forms of the novel – and will expand society’s understanding of science and philosophy and history … and whatever else they can imagine.

Nothing dumb about that.

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