Friday's Wall Street Journal ran an interesting feature: side-by-side articles on whether the internet makes you smarter or dumber. Clay Shirky advocated smarter, while Nicholas Carr (who's in the news for the release of his latest book) argued for dumber. My answer to the question? Yes, it does. Both authors make compelling arguments for their point, and I think that both arguments are valid. What's not in question, from my perspective, is that the way we use the internet -- as an always on, constant companion for communication, entertainment, and information -- can be terribly destructive to our ability to get on with our jobs. And our lives.
I'm not a Luddite by any means. I don't propose that we go back to the pre-internet world, or even the 56K dial-up modem. The internet is much too valuable an invention for that. (And having just laboriously completed some rudimentary carpentry work without power tools, I'm all in favor of technology.) But it's important to recognize that there must be a time and place to use the off button. To be unplugged. To be fully present, without distractions. The fact is, as I've (and many others have) written about ad nauseum, we're incapable of multitasking:
When we're constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.
And yet I see legions of businesspeople and healthcare workers trying to process complex information (spreadsheets, budgets, medical records, etc.) while allowing themselves to be interrupted by the phone or email, or just as damagingly, by self-inflicted interruptions (Hey, I wonder what the score of the Mets game is...). This can't be a good thing. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either: one of the most popular features of the word processing program Scrivener is "full screen mode," which blacks out everything on your computer screen except the document you're working on. And WriteRoom is a word processing program which has as its only selling point, "distraction-free writing."
(I'm not dissing these products, by the way. But I do wonder why we need a product to mimic the appearance of being disconnected when we could just, you know, actually disconnect ourselves. Is it so hard to turn off Outlook and Firefox?)
A few years ago I made a vow that when my wife comes home from work, I close my computer. For the most part, I've lived up to that promise -- and that's something I'm really, really proud of. I don't write that to sound holier-than-thou. (You know, "Look how great I am! I can turn off my email!") I write it because I know how tough it is to unplug the ethernet cable. I also know that as a result, I talk to my wife a lot more than I used to -- and that's a really good thing.
All this is to say that the question isn't whether the internet makes you dumber or smarter. It's whether you can unplug and provide yourself with the time and quiet to focus on whatever it is that's really important.