In two competing but somewhat orthogonal essays in The Wall Street Journal, Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr ostensibly argue opposite sides of the Internet’s effects on society. In Does the Internet Make You Smarter? Shirky tries to put the Internet in the larger historical context of the commoditization of media creation and dissemination tools. Carr, in Does The Internet Make You Dumber? focuses on the effects of the ever-present on-line distractions on our ability to read, comprehend, focus, and think deeply about issues.
Both are definitely worth a read. I’ve long admired the writings of Clay and Nick, even though I don’t always agree with them. But in the end, I find that I agree with both of them. They’re both right. As time goes on, we’ll certainly look back over the last 5-10 years as a turning point in self-publishing and self-expression in the (on-line) public sphere. It’s the latest point along the ever growing arc of societal changes brought about by new technology. Shirky paints that picture well.
But Carr makes some very good points as well. We’re still learning how to deal with this new medium and the perils of mindlessly letting it control (or at least over-influence) our thinking and behavior. I still remember when people referred to television as the “boob tube” and talked of it rotting our brains. They, too, were right to be concerned. But ultimately we, the individuals, are still in control. It is our responsibility to recognize that and assert that control.
If you haven’t read their essays, do yourself a favor. Both are thought provoking. If nothing else, see if you agree with one or both of them… or neither!