Did Gutenberg Make Us Stupid?

Manila Bulletin, March 4, 2010 | Go to article overview

Did Gutenberg Make Us Stupid?


When I was a much younger man in graduate school, my MBA classmates and I were prohibited from using calculators in finance classes. The reasoning was that we would not be able to calculate present value if our calculators broke down and we were forced to make calculations manually. By the time I received an advanced degree—several years later at another institution—calculators were as common as pencils and erasers used to be.All my children used calculators in school, and did their homework on desktop computers at home. By the time they entered college, they required laptops as well, which enabled them to complete assignments and work on papers and theses anytime, anywhere, but also kept them connected on campus to their then budding online social networks, which evolved from messaging and chat to Friendster, Multiply, Facebook, and Twitter.Research conducted by Pew Research Center shows that online platforms are the third most popular source of information after local and national broadcast stations for adults. The easy reliance on online sources of information has some observers worried that what the calculator threatened to do to the minds of young kids, the Internet today is doing to everyone: Making us stupid.The debate is a fierce one. Wireless industry consultant Dean Bubley asked Pew researchers last month, “Did (Johannes) Gutenberg make us stupid” by inventing the printing press because we no longer had to remember as many details? On the contrary, he argues, “the Internet is likely to be front-and-center in any developments related to improvements in neuroscience and human cognition research,” suggesting a steep price for not embracing the technology.Tech scholar Nicholas Carr—who initially posited the argument that the Internet is making us stupid in the Atlantic Monthly—argues that “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.” In Carr’s perspective, we’re becoming superficial and uninteresting as a result of the Internet.Respondents to a “Future of the Internet” survey conducted by Pew and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center overwhelmingly appear to believe that Carr is guilty of overstating his argument, and that Bean is closer to the truth.

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