Is the Internet making us dumber?

CU professor ponders whether the digital age means the end of intellectualism

Cory O'Brien | Boulder Weekly

A favorite folk tale that captivates children around the country is the legend of John Henry, the tale of the man who bests a steam-powered hammer in a drilling race, only to die with hammer in hand after victory. It’s a tale of Olympian strength and determination, but the profoundly tragic message of the story is often lost on the children who read it, too young to understand the full connotations of the relationship between humanity and technology.

The message, of course, is that you can’t fight progress. John Henry was left where he fell, and the world moved on. We moved forward. He won the battle, but the outcome of the war had been decided long before John Henry ever picked up a hammer.

Never has the rift between humanity and technology been so apparent as now, in the midst of the digital revolution, when technology is evolving at a more rapid pace than in any other time in history. It is also the only time where we will be faced with a rift between Digital Natives, who came of age in the digital era, and Digital Immigrants, who remember a time when cell phones, iPads, GPS and Facebook were not a way of life.

“The Digital Immigrants who didn’t grow up with these tools will soon retire and pass away,” says Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University professor currently teaching at the University of Colorado Boulder’s English department. Bauerlein is the best-selling author of The Dumbest Generation, which railed against the effects of social media on our nation’s youth, and editor of The Digital Divide, a more moderate collection of essays outlining the benefits and dangers of the digital revolution. “Pretty soon, there won’t be anyone left who remembers what life was like without these tools.”

When the Digital Immigrants pass, so too will any debate over the impact the information age has had on our society. In essence, these next few decades are our last chance to analyze the effect the Internet and social media has on our way of thinking. Eventually, there will be no one left who still does things the old way.

“This [digital age] has an unclear impact on our human behavior and our social reality,” Bauerlein says, “so we need a lot of people opining strongly so we can come to a reasoned understanding of the issue. Any time you have great changes, it takes a while to assimilate that into society, especially when you have values and interests and deep-rooted premises in play.”

There is little debate that this technological boon has vastly expanded our access to information, connected people in ways we never thought possible and has made our lives much more convenient in many ways. Even Bauerlein, one of the leading voices against the digital revolution, concedes that we are living in an age “filled with miracles and wonders for science, medicine, communication and just simple human convenience.”

But the digital revolution has also changed the way we interact, changed our definition of the word “friend” and even changed the way we think. In his 2001 article “Do They Really Think Differently,” which is republished in The Digital Divide, Mark Prensky argues that the brains of Digital Natives are wired differently than those of Digital Immigrants. The Internet, Prensky says, is changing our brains.

“Based on the latest research in neurobiology,” Prensky writes, “there is no longer any question that stimulation of various kinds actually changes brain structures and affects the way people think, and that these transformations go on throughout life.”

According to Prensky, the manner in which we process information in the digital age appears to be affecting our capacity for linear thought. This has much to do with the way we read online.

Rather than sit down and read an article as it was written, our eyes now scan through articles or web pages, quickly picking out the relevant information while tossing aside the rest.

It’s all part of the need for the instant gratification that the digital age has ushered in. If we can’t pick out what we are looking for on a website within a few seconds, we’ll just move on to the next one.

In a sense, the digital revolution has replaced meticulous study and knowledge for its own sake with intellectual efficiency. In perhaps the most chilling and resonant piece in The Digital Divide, a reprint of the 2008 article from The Atlantic called, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr worries that the endgame of the digital revolution is a world where “intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured and optimized.” With such easy access to every piece of information known to man, the danger is the brain will begin to struggle with abstract thought, and that “ambiguity will not be an opening for insight but a bug to fixed.” Just as the Industrial Revolution turned laborers into some thing resembling an automaton, Carr fears the digital one will do the same for thinkers.

It’s a bit of a wonder that we haven’t tried to make the brain more efficient before now. All of those great machines we build, those pillars of our progressing society, are all ways to make the world a more efficient place. We make things easier, simpler and faster, as if we have the idea that if we could just save enough time, we could start tackling those big dilemmas of the human condition. But some things can’t be made efficient, and the worry is that those things will be left by the wayside. Reading, for example, is a horribly inefficient process, requiring both time and undivided attention. Yet you can’t tell me that a society where people don’t read is somehow more advanced than one where reading is highly valued.

“Eventually, everything is going to be done over the screen,” Bauerlein says. “They will read and write through that medium, and it has the power to be a wonderful learning tool. But I would hate to lose the long book, the old linear reading. All I hope is that we preserve a little space for reading and writing in the oldfashioned way.”


To order Mark Bauerlein’s Digital Divide, visit