Will Google Make us Smarter? Internet Experts Say Yes, but With Caveats

BY Lea Winerman  February 19, 2010 at 11:20 AM EDT

In a widely-read 2008 article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine, writer Nicholas Carr asked “Is Google Making us Stupid?” He argued that as people learn to surf the vast amounts of information available online, they are losing the ability to concentrate and “dive deeply” into a subject matter.

Now, a new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that most Internet and technology experts disagree — they believe that the Internet is making us smarter overall, although it’s also changing some of the definition of human intelligence.

The survey, by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, is the center’s fourth poll on the future of the Internet (NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown talked to project director Lee Rainie about the third poll in 2006).

In the new survey, researchers asked 895 experts to answer questions on what the Internet would look like in 2020.

Respondees spanned fields including academia, government, business and journalism and included Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, technology journalist and analyst Esther Dyson, Google Director of Research Peter Norvig, and many others. The researchers asked them to agree or disagree with five statements about the future of the Internet, and to explain their answers.

Seventy-six percent of the respondents agreed with the statement “By 2020, people’s use of the Internet will have enhanced their intelligence,” only 21 percent disagreed. In their answers, many offered a more nuanced view.

“It’s a mistake to treat intelligence as an undifferentiated whole. No doubt we will become worse at doing some things (‘more stupid’) requiring rote memory of information that is now available through Google. But with this capacity freed, we may (and probably will) be capable of more advanced integration and evaluation of information (‘more intelligent,’) wrote Stephen Downes, of Canada’s National Research Council.

Eighty-one percent of survey respondents also agreed with the statement “The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 will often come ‘out of the blue,’ and not have been anticipated by many of today’s savviest innovators.” Project director Lee Rainie says that that response surprised him.

“There was just an overwhelming sense that we don’t know now what the mass phenomena will be in 2020,” he says. In fact, he says, the respondents do have a general sense of the groundwork that’s being laid now for future trends. But, he adds “there was a sense that we have a lousy track record of predicting these things [...Respondents] said ‘ in 2000, if someone had asked me this question, there’s no way I would have anticipated the iPhone.’”

The survey also probed the experts’ views of the future openness of the Internet. Despite recent news of continuing censorship in China, and businesses trying to protect their copyright and intellectual property online, 61 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “most disagreements over the way information flows online will be resolved in favor of a minimum number of restrictions.”

“The Net users will band together to keep the Net open,” wrote Jerry Berman, chair of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “They will continue to choose open over closed and gated.”

But others disagreed.

“The locked-down future is more realistic as things stand now,” wrote Susan Crawford, a former advisor to President Obama on science and technology. “We’ve got a very cautious government, an international movement towards greater control, and a pliant public. I wish this wasn’t the case.”