Does the Internet Make Us Smarter? (Part 2)

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In his “pop culture makes you smarter” book Everything Bad Is Good For You, author Steven Johnson makes very compelling points about the benefits of TV, movies and video games.

But does he convince us that the internet is also beneficial to our brains? You might think that Johnson has never viewed a youtube video and seen the horrors that occur in the comments section. Surely these online communities are dumbing us down; what could possibly be going through these people’s heads?

Well, first, The Onion tracked down a local idiot about to post on the internet in an attempt to get a glimpse into his psyche. He is quoted:

“(I will) draft a response, being careful to put as little thought into it as possible, while making sure to use all capital letters and incorrect punctuation.

“… After clicking the ‘submit’ button, I will immediately refresh the page so that I can view my own comment. I will then notice (it) has not appeared because the server has not yet processed my request, become angry and confused, and re-post the same comment with unintentional variations on the original wording and misspellings, creating two slightly different yet equally moronic comments,” he said.

“It is my hope that this will illustrate both my childlike level of impatience and my inability to replicate a simple string of letters and symbols 30 seconds after having composed it.”

Since a grasp on grammar is certainly not a requirement to participate in the burgeoning online world, as Melody commented, what is this doing to us?

According to Johnson, the web’s benefits are much more concerned with form than content. He argues that probing to learn new interfaces, acclimating to new platforms and troubleshooting are giving our minds a great workout, and he even backs some of it up with neuroscience.

It’s true that today we are forced to adjust more and more quickly to new media. We had email, then AIM, then Facebook, then Twitter, then RSS feeds then Digg and Stumbleupon, and we’re getting better at picking up patterns that can be applied to any new complicated system.

Often it’s not even the platform itself that captivates us but rather the challenge to decipher it. (Bloggers especially can relate to the almost endless communities we’ve explored: Blog Catalog, Blog Engage, Zimbio, Fuel My Blog just to name a few.)

And we don’t stop to read and memorize instructions; we jump right in. We probe for shortcuts and find ways to use the system for maximum benefit. This cognitive exercise is how the internet makes us smarter.

Now, is this enough to offset the effect of the Onion-style “local idiots” and spammers derailing online communities?

I’ll check the latest tweets and retweets to see if there’s any consensus…

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