Recent books and articles contend that the Internet has made us narcissistic, shallow, and uncreative. See here, here, and here. According to critics, search engines produce easy answers, discouraging independent and critical thinking. They also provide access to bogus information, confirming prejudices and fostering stupidity and extremism. These arguments seemingly build on the work of many thoughtful scholars, such as Neil Postman who authored Amusing Ourselves to Death and Benjamin Barber who wrote Consumed.
In Wired, David Wolman takes this argument to task, characterizing these critics as modern-day Chicken Littles. Just as the telephone did not extinguish letter writing and modern transportation did not ruin community life, the Internet will not stunt intellectual life in the twenty-first century. Wolman argues that digital technologies, in fact, give us more opportunity to become engaged in the world of ideas. Wikipedia and Wiktionary demonstrate a bona fide hunger for learning and accurate information. And irrationality and prejudice cannot be blamed on technology—it was there long before the emergence of the Internet and will remain long after we have moved on to another communications medium.
The Internet’s overall impact on our intellectual life is surely debatable. But recent reports suggest that it is having a positive effect on our family lives, bringing us in closer contact with our loved ones than ever before. As the Washington Post notes today, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a report, described as the first of its kind, that finds our families lives richer as a result of Information Age technologies. The report notes that 25 percent of adults said that cellphone calls, emails and text messages, and other forms of online communications made their families closer. 60 percent of responding adults said that the technologies had no impact on their family lives, and only 11 percent said the technology had a negative effect. 47 percent of the adults said cellphones and the Internet had improved family communication. Barry Wellman, an author of the report and sociology professor at the University of Toronto, explained that the communication innovations allow families to “know what each other is doing during the day” and does not “cut back on their physical presence with each other.” The findings were based on a nationally representative poll of 2,252 people, which explored technology use and profiled a group of 482 adults with children.