New Report from Pew: How Does the Web Affect our Minds?

http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Future-of-the-Internet-IV.aspx

A survey of nearly 900 Internet stakeholders reveals fascinating new perspectives on the way the Internet is affecting human intelligence and the ways that information is being shared and rendered.

The web-based survey gathered opinions from prominent scientists, business leaders, consultants, writers and technology developers. It is the fourth in a series of Internet expert studies conducted by the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. In this report, we cover experts’ thoughts on the following issues:

  • Will it be possible to be anonymous online or not by the end of the decade?
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    30 Page Primer on Digital Information Literacy

    Background

    The Digital Literacy Contest is a competition to search the internet. Students have 30 minutes to answer questions. Correct answers are rewarded, and incorrect answers are penalized. The winners get cash prizes. Universities like Brown, Cornell and Northwestern host the contest for their students. Here’s a demo.

    Interviewing Contest Winners

    Our team interviews the winners of these contests in-depth. We want to understand why they are so gifted. What can they teach others? What are their favorite websites, tools and techniques? Over the years we have interviewed 100+ winners.

    A Primer Based on these Interviews

    We created a 30 page primer on digital information literacy based on these interviews. In fall 2009 we piloted this primer with a professor at Purdue University. She used it to teach 115 students how to find, evaluate and synthesize information online. This spring we updated the primer, and the same professor is using it again.

    Want to Use the Primer?

    Contact me if you are interested in using this primer: daniel.poynter@gnic.org or (765) 588-3620

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    Elizabeth Gabel: Internet May Decrease Thought

    Background

    GNIC hosted essay contests across the U.S. and Canada in fall 2009. Part of the prompt was:

    [How does the internet change our] intelligence – our memories, attention spans, as well as our abilities to focus, reflect and synthesize? Specifically, shape your argument as a response to Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? and Jamais Cascio’s Get Smarter… [more]

    Elizabeth Gabel is a student at Pennsylvania State University. You can contact Elizabeth at elizagabel [@) psu DOT – edu.

    Elizabeth Gabel’s Essay

    “The instant gratification of the internet can be alluring.  It is a source for quick answers requiring limited thought.  A simple search can reveal analyses of works and a variety of facts.  With cyberspace offering us so much for so little, we become spoiled and abstain from important types of thinking.  If it is easier to search for an explanation of a topic online than to create a unique take on it, people are less likely to bother thinking it through.

    Take, for example, a mathematical formula built out of basic concepts.  If one knows the fundamental formulas, it is possible to manipulate and combine them to form the desired equation.  However, it is quicker and requires less thought to simply find the final formula on the internet.   This removal of the necessity of cognition invites mental laziness whereas needing to figure out methods and problems oneself invites mental growth.  Even just to find simple facts, it can be a mental exercise to try to find them in one’s memory.  This simple opportunity is lost if one simply searches for the answer online.

    Since it takes more time to solve problems and recall facts independently, people with internet access may find it easier to use others’ findings online than come up with their own.  Therefore, the web can inhibit mental exercise and growth if used too frequently.  This is not to say that the internet cannot be used to share new information and ideas to which others can then respond and build off of, but used too often it can remove vital mental practice and decrease the resulting potential intelligence.”

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    Alex Goldman: Better Off in East Berlin

    Background

    GNIC hosted essay contests across the U.S. and Canada in fall 2009. Part of the prompt was:

    [How does the internet change our] intelligence – our memories, attention spans, as well as our abilities to focus, reflect and synthesize? Specifically, shape your argument as a response to Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? and Jamais Cascio’s Get Smarter… [more]

    Alex Goldman is a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Florida. He works at the Bureau of Economic and Business Research. You can contact Alex on his website.

    Interview with Alex Goldman

    Part 1

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    Part 2

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    Alex Goldman’s Essay

    “As I was lying in bed the other night, I allowed myself to wonder what the biggest change in human society has been since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  One of my first memories is of visiting Epcot’s Tommorowland with my father around that same time and daydreaming about the flying cars that were then already ten years overdue by 1950s predictions.  It seems to many people that humanity has made strikingly little progress on these kinds of tough technical problems – witness the continued doomer/boomer debate over environmental issues.  Yet, we should be glad that information and communication technology (ICT) innovations are clearly where we have made the greatest progress.  Intensive users of Internet tools simply live lives very different from those of non-users.  I would argue that the lifestyle gap between East and West Germans twenty years ago was actually less than that which currently exists between so-called “digital natives” and those who have not yet embraced the ICT revolution.  It is not that they understand their societies in a fundamentally different manner, or that they are somehow exempt from basic human tendencies and market forces, but that they interact with the world in a wholly different manner.  Just look at how differently mobile phone “refusniks” must plan and navigate their social lives to stay in step with those who use this increasingly ubiquitous technology.  Just think about the ways in which dating behavior, and not just in urban/liberal areas, has been altered by text messaging.

    My father was bullish on the future, and especially on early PCs.  Like many people, my parents believed that the then dominant forms of entertainment did not help one grow intellectually, but computers did.  Thus, television was restricted, video games were banned, and spending hours on the computer was encouraged.  Even at ten years old, I knew these were fatuous distinctions.  Granted, by all appearances it must have looked like I was training for future white-collar employment, but this was mostly an illusion.  Fantasy baseball leagues on Prodigy were a neat supplement to watching or playing the game, but they would not improve my understanding of statistics.  Real-time strategy games would not make me a brilliant military strategist.  I feel compelled to point out that while Playboy magazine does in fact come bundled with some good writing, Internet porn never does.  The bulk of what I learned about mental engagement with others (what I call “arguing the world”) didn’t come from electronic media, but from being forced to reading the local paper with my parents and discuss almost everything I read.  Today, I’m reading more than ever, what with all those RSS feeds and free access to Google Books.  Yet this increased intake has done little to improve my ability to engage with ideas at higher levels.  Despite not being free to read with the breadth of a digitally-enhanced Westerner, I must admit the distinct possibility that my mind might have been better off in East Berlin.”

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    Allie Conti: Searching & Destroying

    Background

    GNIC hosted essay contests across the U.S. and Canada in fall 2009. Part of the prompt was:

    [How does the internet change our] intelligence – our memories, attention spans, as well as our abilities to focus, reflect and synthesize? Specifically, shape your argument as a response to Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? and Jamais Cascio’s Get Smarter… [more]

    Allie Conti won first place at the University of Florida. She studies English, Journalism and Religion, and she was an Opinions Editor for the The Independent Florida Alligator. You can contact Allie on her website.

    Audio Interview

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    Allie Conti’s Essay

    “Netflix subscribers can now stream an unlimited amount of videos online with their subscriptions.  Instead of increasing the time I spend watching movies, though, I’ve found that this new service mostly increases the amount of time I spend clicking through movie descriptions and reviews. I add movies to my “virtual queue” that I never watch. I am a collector of hypothetical cinematic experiences. A lot of the times I end up watching nothing simply because I can watch everything.

    Likewise, instead of immersing myself into a book, I sometimes find myself skimming through endless Wikipedia chains. Starting with a biography of Richard Wright, I’ll notice that I’m reading about John Keats’ theory of negative capability and wonder where the time went. Instead of this being a byproduct of a shortened attention span, this is simply a different type of learning, distinct from deep reading.

    Simply put, there are two manners of acquiring knowledge that work in concordance with one another. To take from the title of an Iggy Pop song, I could call one “searching” and the other “destroying.” Searching involves researching topics to delve into, and destroying is the mastery of a specific, narrowly tailored topic.

    The Internet is augmenting our ability to think because it allows us to find more things to think about. To respond to Nicholas Carr’s statement about how “staccato thinking” prevents once-voracious readers from completing novels–  “staccato thinking” and “deep thinking” are mutually exclusive, but they are different sides of the same coin. As a literature enthusiast, I use “searching” to whet my appetites and then “destroying” to tackle works that seem especially worthy of my time.  As a journalist and an editorialist, I use “searching” to find stories and “destroying” to focus in on a topic I want to localize. Instead of dampening my abilities to analyze information, the Internet provides me with an unlimited amount of topics to analyze. I must still use critical thinking to choose which topics are most relevant or important; once I am done scanning, I must switch to a different kind of thinking in order to “zero in.”

    If anything, the Web has changed the way we think without erasing the ways we used to think before the age of the hyperlink. One could even say the Internet acts like a derailleur on a bicycle in a form of cognitive aerobics. Yes, I add many movies to my “instant queue” that I’ll probably never watch, but that doesn’t mean I lack the attention span to sit through them. Exploring a vast library of movies, or of any knowledge, is not a waste of time or a sign of technologically induced ADD – it is a form of augmenting one’s awareness of what exists  in order to appreciate something truly worthwhile when it is discovered, whether it be through human “fluid intelligence” or through the help of a artificial focusing assistant.”

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    Nobel Winner: Youth can Search Very Well

    Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist at Princeton University.

    …the sense many of us are getting that when we are bathed in information (it is not really snippets of information, we need the metaphor of living in a liquid that is constantly changing in flavor and feel) we no longer know precisely what we have learned, nor do we know where our thoughts come from, or indeed whether the thoughts are our own or absorbed from the bath…

    Will all this change what it is like to be human? Will it change what consciousness is like? There must be people out there who study teenagers who have lived in this environment all their life, and they should be the one to tell us. The only teenagers I know well are my grandchildren, and that is not enough of a sample. They use computers a lot, but it has not made them very different. Of course they read much less, and they have a sense of how knowledge is organized that I can only envy — I keep being frustrated by how much better young people are at the task of searching. -source

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    (Very Short) Essay Contest

    NOTE: This contest is over. The deadline was Friday, November 13th, 2009. Thank you to the students who submitted essays. We’ll announce the winners soon.

    Our Digital Literacy Contest tests how well people find and evaluate information online. These are only two parts of ‘digital literacy.’ What about synthesizing?

    This fall we’re offering $250 in cash scholarships for a (very short) essay contest. Deadline Fri Nov 13, 2009. Open to all current students at these universities (not just those involved in the Digital Literacy Contest). Here’s the official prompt:

    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 Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? and Jamais Cascio’s 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.

    Email completed essays to Daniel.Poynter@gnic.org. Our team will select one winner from each of these five universities. Each winner will be mailed a check for $50. Formatting of text doesn’t matter. University staff are welcome to participate but are not eligible for prizes. All submitted essays will get a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike license, and the best will be put online:

    This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. Others can download and redistribute your work just like the by-nc-nd license, but they can also translate, make remixes, and produce new stories based on your work. All new work based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also be non-commercial in nature.

    You may also wish to use/reference this background material:

    Good luck! =)

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    Future of Humanity: A Map of the Conversation

    This is a new project I’m hosting on my personal blog:

    Where is humanity going? Our technology empowers the individual, but to what end? This is a (growing) list of people, institutions and concepts central in this discussion of technology and our future (from where I stand).

    I’m very familiar with everything listed here. I’ve read the articles/books, watched the movies, and sometimes even met the people. Use this list to jump into the conversation. We need you.

    More from Future of Humanity: A Map of the Conversation

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    BarcampMilwaukee, an Unconference

    By luck I was in town during the BarcampMilwaukee “unconference.” Participants created their own sessions. Topics included: Drupal, veganism, magic & technology, web security and the development of science fiction… Oh yeah, and there was a magnificent potluck.

    I led a session called ‘Brainstorming Brainstorming’. 15 of us collaborated and created How to Brainstorm.

    I also got to meet Gabe Wollenburg and James Carlson. Gabe MCed the event and kept an electric joy in the air. James was another organizer of the event, and he’s the inspirational force behind Bucketworks – “the world’s first health club for the brain:”

    It’s a place and a methodology for directly connecting people to one another and to the wider world through their values and passions, so they transform their community. It’s a local place with a global strategy, because if we build healthy localities, our whole world will grow. We focus on the individual first, because until someone understands their values and their passions, they’re not likely to join in sharing interest in the wider world…

    In the last five years our 700 members have created 28 new companies, 65 new jobs, a highschool, a student film festival, 7 theatre companies, 3 technology companies, and innumerable pieces of art, items for sale, performances, gatherings, shows, and events–there were over 863 events at Bucketworks in 2006.

    I love meeting these people. =)

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    Outline of Jamais Cascio’s Get Smarter

    The Atlantic published Jamais Cascio’s Get Smarter in the July/August 2009 issue. It’s the first good response to Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? published a year before. I outlined it using Roland Paris’s C.L.E.A.R. model.

    UPDATE: I asked Jamais for comments on the outline below on 10/3/09. I wanted it to reflect his intentions. He was kind enough to reply at length, and I’ve updated it accordingly.

    » Continue reading “Outline of Jamais Cascio’s Get Smarter”

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