Is the Internet Making Us Dumber?

Getting information is quick and easy on the web, but at what cost? Jordan Barber, known as “The 20-year-old Thomas Friedman” in some circles, examines the downside of the shift away from labor-intensive library research.

Is the internet making us dumber? It might be.

The claim is somewhat misleading. I don’t mean dumber in the rigid, IQ sense of the word, but rather that the internet has made us less intellectually rigorous and precise, less inclined to acquire information in a detailed, careful manner.

Imagine a craggy peak. This is the intellectual landscape as it once existed. Information was hard to deal with. It required dedication to learn things: finding dusty tomes of lore hidden in huge libraries could take an enormous amount of time. It was prohibitive. But the internet has made that information landscape more like a paved road. It’s so undemanding to find what we need. Vast quantities of information can be summoned to any user with a little know-how. The level of ease is unprecedented, and the amount of information we are capable of finding is incredible. But the internet—because of its ease of access—has quashed our intellectual curiosity by making everything so simple. We’ve become something like an information trafficker: that is, instead of absorbing information and developing ideas on our own, we now heavily rely on the internet to do it all for us. Who needs actual knowledge when it’s so easy to look up on the web? But in this process, we’ve lost our spirit of curiosity.

This article was inspired during a trip to the library (As a student, sometimes this is required). I had to drag out some primary sources. The internet tends to warp things into broad, generalized ideas, probably because we don’t like reading a computer screen for too long. Wandering the endless rows of library shelves, I had forgotten how specific information can get, how important little things can be. People—insane people, surely—have written books on the tiniest information leftovers. Comparatively, these authors have an intellectual obsession far outweighing my own. If I remember correctly, some time ago, a doctoral thesis had been published on a single word in Hamlet. The entirety of it was devoted to the word’s single meaning. How is that possible? Something like that would never arise from an internet forum, no matter how scholarly.

Yet the array of information on the internet is astounding. Looking at a user-powered information system such as, we see a variety of topics impossibly broad all consolidated on one site. This instantaneous access of information has led to a U.S. population that has become more in tune than ever. Where do people get these things? How do they know this stuff? They arguably don’t. They’ve trafficked it. They’ve linked it from other sites, other sources on the internet. It’s all rather incestuous, but where does the original act of learning originate? Sure, people are able to see this information, but it’s without a lot of context. We’re leaning pretty hard on the internet for information, but we are not compelled to look deeper into the subject. Who knows how outrageous the Bush administration’s actions have been for the past seven years? Who has read and studied the U.S. national security laws? And why would we, if we could find a summary of everything we want on the internet? Who wants to slog through tomes of books—to scale that craggy peak—to learn something? The internet, in many ways, has transformed our relationship with learning: it can now be instantaneous, but the depth of the knowledge and our overall conception of it shallow. We have become information traffickers, capable of absorbing and passing on information without knowing it comprehensively.

The internet allows us to peruse vast amounts of information, but with little depth. In a way, information has been heading this direction for a long time. Television, radio, and even magazine articles shorten the jibber-jabber and deliver the key goods. As information access increases, the basic knowledge to comprehend it decreases. Where do all the Wikipedia articles come from? Ideally, they come from people who know things from primary sources. The internet simply takes that information and disperses it, but doesn’t really build upon it. We, as internet users, similarly spread it further, failing to reach the same level of comprehension as the people who originally created it. On something like Wikipedia, that information is easily accessible and our search ends there. The articles offer a respectable array of other general information, so you could continue reading and probably get a bit more out of it. But do I understand the topic? It’s likely that an online article will not enlighten me. In addition, the internet would not really provide me with critical or detailed analysis of the given topic. In this way, I have not fully understood the topic. If I wanted to that, I’d have to go read a biography or other scholarly book. I’d have to go to a library and sit. That would take time—much more time than looking on the internet.

Look at the huge issue regarding college papers and plagiarizing. Students are often caught nabbing paragraphs or entire essays from the internet. Again, they’ve simply trafficked ideas. Copy and paste. Excuses of laziness aside, these students have lost the entire point of writing a paper—the whole point is to demand the use of your brain. Instead, they’ve relied on the internet. What’s more intellectually destructive?

The internet has transformed our relationship with information—that is doubtless. It has also given people extraordinary knowledge and power. There has been discussion—ever since the advent of the internet—that books and libraries have become antiquated. The information highway is an easy road to drive on, but we should approach it with caution. Easy isn’t necessarily better. The internet, and its current modes of creating information, could not possibly equal the intellectual rigor found in the quiet rows of libraries. We can’t rely on the internet for much more than general knowledge. I worry that we believe—because of the internet—that we have a total grasp on knowledge. That we can say things assertively and forcefully without fear of inaccuracy. The internet is a positive force, undoubtedly, but we should always remember that off the easy roads are difficult peaks. The college I attend has a motto: pros ta akra. It is Greek. It means “toward the heights.”

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.