A Digital Dumbing Down?

The lively debate over the intellectual impact of digital culture.

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Is the new media environment making us dumber or just different? It seems everyone is weighing in on the question these days, whether in books lamenting The Dumbest Generation and The Age of American Unreason or in articles asking whether the Internet is making us stupid or at least hastening the twilight of book reading.

Not all observers are angst-ridden. Recently New York Times columnist David Brooks dryly observed that "on or about June 29, 2007," the release date of the first iPhone, media displaced culture, and "the means of transmission replaced the content of culture as the center of historical excitement." But Brooks seemed more bemused than alarmed by the fact that what he calls "aggregators and appraisers" and other "lords of the memes" are the new cultural elite.

U.S. News went to several scholars and specialists for their thoughts on the effects of the digital and other new media on the minds and culture of the under-30 generation. Edited remarks:

Maryanne Wolf, the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, is the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.

One of my big questions is, "Who is minding the cognitive store?" It's part of that larger question, "Who's really in charge of what and how we access knowledge?" I have always thought of the Internet and other media as tools that we had some kind of control over, but what I'm worried about is that they have almost become the content instead of the tool. The book and the printing press were tools that we used, but the new media seem to be more in charge than we are, and I'm particularly worried about what we consider the intellectual content of what we have access to. I am neither a techno-utopian nor a Luddite. My most important question is what the future is for the next generation. My brain and your brain are interesting to me, but we are fairly well formed in our intellectual capacities. I don't think that's the same for the young. I want to be sure that we are preserving our ability to control what we think and how we think for that next generation who have not had that same independent mind-set toward probing underneath the text that we have. My hope for them is that they are not going to accept the surface of what they Google or whatever they're doing with whatever media, that they are really going to be thinking beyond and beneath what they are given as the first three "hits." This is an important point that I think Nick Carr [in his Atlantic Monthly article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"] makes much better than I do. The information we are getting access to is prioritized by popularity rather than by content. So that's where the medium itself is controlling the content.

Socrates [in his attack on the rise of the written word in Plato's Phaedrus] said that youth can be deluded by the seeming permanence of print to believe that they have found truth when they have only barely begun to probe for it. He was saying that all of us, and particularly youth, are vulnerable to thinking that what is in front of us is enough. In the last chapter of my book, I say that I watch my own children in horror after they write an essay, and I say, "What do you think?" and they say, "Oh, I know it all. I Googled it." Again, it's the same phenomenon of the seeming permanence of this information source that deludes the child or adolescent or even the adult into thinking that they have the truth. That makes us more into the superficial decoders of information—the Socratic nightmare—not real probers and internalizers of information.

One thing the recent National Endowment for the Arts study "To Read or Not to Read" says that is particularly worrisome to me is that you see these kids who at around age 9 are decoding—the first part of the reading process—better than ever before. But by the time they're in middle school or high school, particularly by 12th grade, you look at their inferential processes, their comprehension processes, and you find that they're flat or declining. We have only correlational data now. We can't say, "That's because kids are spending every spare minute not reading books." That kind of evidence is interesting but not the kind we can derive causality from yet. We need to do studies of children who have different immersions in digital media and look at brain imaging. Then you'd have behavioral measures of comprehension but also be able to see, or not see, whether they are literally reading in a different way and thinking about what they read using a different array of processes.