Friday, February 6, 2009

The Internet Made Me Stupid

I used to be a pretty smart guy. I took three years of college calculus and two of physics, including relativity and quantum mechanics. I knew how a computer worked inside out. I could hold up my end of the conversation with just about everyone I knew. It was a rare day when there was a discussion that I could not follow. Occasionally I would be reminded that there were still things about which I knew almost nothing, such as when I cracked open "Superstring Theory" (Volume 1, Introduction) by Green, Schwarz and Witten, and got lost on page three. But it was pretty easy to put that book back on my bookshelf and ignore it.

Today, that's not so easy to do. The Internet has made immense amounts of information available at the click of a hyperlink, and most of those links point to things of which I am mostly ignorant.

While trying to understand monads, I went to Wikipedia. It said monads as used in computer science derive from category theory. I followed that link, and within a few hours was amazed at how much there was about category theory and related subjects that I did not know. When I backed up to review my group theory, a subject about which I thought I at least knew a little, there were far more links to things I did not know about than to things I did know about. Even when chasing down topics in computer science, my college major, such as binary trees, there were all sorts of little pieces with which I was not familiar. Each little piece was no problem to read and understand, but it's not like a book where you can read through it and be done. With hyperlinks, they just go on and on and on.... no matter how far you go, there are always more links leading to little corners that you don't know about, from which the links sometimes open out into huge unfamiliar areas. So much to learn!

The Internet has also made it much easier for me to find people smarter than me - or at least people with way more knowledge about certain topics. I recently started paying a lot more attention to functional languages, and found a couple of groups in my area that get together occasionally to discuss topics in functional programming. There are generally five to ten people in these meetings, with one person making an informal presentation and the rest of the people asking intelligent questions. I'm not used to being the stupidest person in the room, but that's how I feel at these meetings. I struggle even to ask cogent questions. Either these are really some of the smartest people in the area, or I am not nearly as smart as I once thought I was.

I have joined some mailing lists for specialized subjects, including the Scala mailing list. These can be even more humbling than going to the local meetings. Likewise when reading blogs and responses. There are some really smart people in the world; mailing lists and blogs make it seem like they are all living on my block, and I'm just the local slow boy trying to tag along with them.

Other people have also wondered if the internet makes people stupid. Atlantic Magazine had an article in their July/August 2008 issue by Nicholas Carr titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid". The article says the Internet provides people with little snippets of information, and that people no longer have the patience to sit down and read a book. The author claims this makes people's knowledge superficial, because they don't delve deeply into a subject as they would with a book. I don't know who he talked to about that, but it wasn't me. I have spent hours digging into technical subjects on the Internet that I never would have bothered to pursue if I had to go out and get a book on the subject. When I say the Internet has made me stupid, I am saying something quite different than Mr. Carr in that Atlantic article.

The Internet has humbled me, but that's pretty easy to live with when I consider how much of an opportunity it has given me to continue my education. Rephrasing the words of many others, Einstein said "As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it." The Internet has helped me see a whole new magnitude of darkness.

Update 2009-05-27: In his article "The importance of stupidity in scientific research", Martin A. Schwartz writes about learning "that the scope of things I didn't know ... was, for all practical purposes, infinite." He learned it through research; I learned it from the Internet.


Martin Dobmeier said...

Great post! Couldn't agree more.

I usually love reading books. They give me a reasonable overview and a deeper understanding of the topics. I've always thought I had understood the author's points and the context in general. After putting down a book I feel "smarter" and usually satisfied with myself. More often than not I come across some intersting stuff that I'd like to know more about. Then I'd hit the internet on the lookout for more information on that particular subject. That's when it usually dawns on me that I've not yet understood a fraction of the thing. This can be frustrating and very time-consuming ;) Especially in light of the mass of people out there that know so much more than me.

Back to reading ;)

Uomo Vitruviano said...

very interesting post!

however I don't fully agree. by doing research (applied maths) it seems to me that the more you restrict into an area, the more you realize that people have understood very little and are just researching something infinitesimally different from what already exist, until when every 10-20 years a genius comes and revolutionizes the field.

on the contrary, when you just step outside an area, you cannot understand anything for two reasons:
i) different language
ii) the fact that everything we understand seems easy and what we still have to understand seems an overwhelming bunch of impossible knowledge

but I believe that when we delve into any topic, the important concepts are always very few and appearing over and over again

D_Snide said...

It seems that this article is a little indifferent on exactly what the stance is. It articulates on points where the internet opens up to an arena of uncontrollably being drawn away from initial research by hyper links of other subjects. The internet also presents different venues from all across the world with many different people with many different talents thus making someone feel inferior. For better or worse, these are simple metrics of globalism.

Its my opinion that the internet has the capacity to make you "stupid", if you let it. The internet is no doubt the greatest resource for knowledge that civilization has had access to on such a large scale. However, with that, this bombardment of information can create a sense of over reliance for SOME. This over reliance also CAN create stagnation of creative thought and critical thinking. Its been my experience that some people with trivial dilemmas too often would rather ask for help and get quick answers from the internet than to try to figure it out for themselves. To use a very general and broad example, what do you think is better for your brain; solving simple math problems with your mind or relying on a calculator.