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Tuesday, 23 February 2010 12:09

Reading this will make you smarter, say experts

A survey of nearly 900 researchers, educators, and other observers of the technological and social scene revealed that more than three-quarters of them think the Internet is enhancing human intelligence, and most think it's improving reading and writing.

The Future of the Internet survey was conducted by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center.

The researchers asked 895 experts a series of five "tension pair" questions -- in other words, questions to which they were asked to choose between two contradictory answers.

Given the choice between "By 2020, people's use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices" and "By 2020, people's use of the Internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot," 76% chose the former answer.

Both statements also made reference to last summer's cover story in The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr, entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

The survey participants -- including Carr -- were asked to explain their answers, and Carr continues to argue that "what the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking."

For the replies of Google employees, see Page 2.

People who work at Google, as one might expect, do not agree with Carr.

Google research director Peter Norvig wrote, "Carr is of course right that Google thrives on understanding data. But making sense of data'¦requires creativity, a mix of broad and deep knowledge, and a host of connections to other people. That is what Google is trying to facilitate."

And Google chief economist Hal Varian chimed in, "The smartest person in the world could well be behind a plow in China or India.  Providing universal access to information will allow such people to realize their full potential, providing benefits to the entire world."

The survey also asked whether the Internet is improving or endangering reading and writing, and 65% chose "improving."

When asked whether 2020's hot gadgets will be a surprise or whether they're pretty evident today, 80% said they'd "often come 'out of the blue.'"

Those surveyed also felt (61% vs. 33%) that over the next 10 years, the Internet will remain an end-to-end technology, as it is now, rather than coming to be controlled by intermediary institutions, whether commercial or governmental.

For optimistic and pessimistic thoughts on that last point, see page 3.

"The Net users will band together to keep the Net open," thinks Jerry Berman, chair of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Richard Forno of the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University agrees: "Traditional organizations'¦will flail around to protect their business models and perceived relevance, but there will be equally powerful capabilities emerging from the Internet community that will break through/counter those new controls/restrictions on the flows of information."

Internet pioneer and Stanford teacher Howard Rheingold, on the other hand, is less  sanguine. "Given events in China and Iran," he writes, "I am going to take a rare (for me) pessimistic position. The forces of central control, politically and economically, are moving to recentralize the power they lost when the Internet grew explosively."

And Karl Auerback, CTO of InterWorking Labs, says, "Much as I want the end-to-end principle to remain I see it dying. Most users today, and most vendors of network services, perceive the net as a system of applications not as a system that transports packets. I believe that the internet is headed towards being a 'lumpy' network more like the several mobile phone networks in the U.S. than the uniform internet of today."

The last question had to do with anonymity online. A majority -- 55% vs 41% -- thought that people in 2020 would still find it easy to use the Internet "without publicly disclosing who they are."

Susan Crawford, former advisor to President Obama and now on the law faculty at the University of Michigan, warns, "We'll be known to others as a condition of doing what we want to do. That may not be all bad news - we'll get loyalty points, after all - but we'll have to ensure that traditionally anonymous political speech and criticism is somehow protected. When it comes to commerce, anonymity is over."

For another view, see page 4.

But Axel Burns of the Queensland University of Technology says, "Other than for law enforcement hardliners, the challenge is not to tie every online activity to a specific identified user, but simply to verify that the activity is carried out by (or at least on behalf of) an actual human being rather than by a spambot or other malicious and disruptive entity -- and for this, verified pseudonymity [as opposed to complete anonymity] is sufficient."

And Craigslist founder Craig Newmark writes, "We'll see a wide range of online identity options, from anonymity, to different levels of reasonably verified identity."

The survey participants were recruited via "email invitation, Twitter or Facebook."

"Since the data are based on a non-random sample," the surveyors warn, "a margin of error cannot be computed, and the results are not projectable to any population other than the experts in this sample."

In other words, take the percentages with a grain of salt -- especially the one about the Internet making us stupid. Perhaps it's too much to expect actual Internet users actually using the Internet to answer "yes" to that.

But the questions and answers do point to issues that will affect all of us in the next decade and are worthwhile for that, at least.

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