Does the internet make us smart, stupid or just more informed?

There has been an ongoing debate in the past few years about what the internet does to our brains.  Some would argue that due to the sheer volume of information we consume on a daily basis we are actually becoming smarter.  While the other opinion is that we have lost the ability to concentrate due to the constant e-mails, messages and scrolling sidebars which distract us.

As far as I can tell, this issue was first really brought to light in the article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  from The Atlantic.  Recently a counter article from the same publication argues that “Google Makes Us Cocky, Not Stupid.”

As I am most knowledgeable from a linguistic perspective, I would argue that it makes us neither cocky nor stupid but rather more informed.

1.  Google Makes us Stupid

The main argument in this article is that we have lost the ability to concentrate.  I would agree with this as I have so much information to process on a daily basis I also become fidgety while reading books and have to fight the urge to return to the computer and see what is going on in the online world.  I even wrote a post about this called “Internet Addict” where I tried to reason out why I could no longer concentrate as much as I used to.  I really thought that I might be going partially crazy!

Yet, with the articles from The Atlantic I feel better that other people are experiencing this phenomenon and that should I be sent to the crazy house, at least I will have some company.

But returning to my linguistic background, I would definitely have to argue that the Internet does not make us “stupid,” but rather “distracted.”

Looking at the definition for stupid I found the following:

Stupid: “lacking or marked by lack of intellectual acuity”

This of course is certainly not the case for most of us as there are many things going on in our brains simply by reading new information on the internet.  The question then, what is “smart?”  Would being “smart” mean a collection of facts, being able to connect the dots and come up with new theories and ideas, or creating new ideas all by ourself which occur with very minimal inputs?

2.  Does the internet make us smart?

Again, I guess it all depends on how we define what it means to be “smart.”  So, let’s start with the definition.

Smart:  “showing mental alertness and calculation and resourcefulness.”

Wow, that definition really does not help at all.

Long ago, I thought being “smart” was someone who had all the answers.  With the internet we are able to easily find the answers and at first if I knew the answer to a question or was easily able to find the answer, then I felt entitled to a well deserved “Smarty-Pants Dance!”

But now, the definition of “smart” seems to be changing as the articles from The Atlantic seem to suggest.  Therefore, I’m not really sure how to define “smart” but what I do know is that whether we obtain the information from books, television shows, or the internet the source of information does not matter but what is derived from it and put into our brains does.

3.  Sources of information

In the past, I would have thought of myself as “smart” if I knew some obscure fact or was knowledgeable about something that most people were unaware of.    In the past, “book knowledge” is what made a person “smart” and T.V. is what made a person “dumb.”  But with the massive amount of media through the internet and T.V. sometimes the knowledge is just as good as anything one would obtain from a book.

To give an example, if one wanted to learn about the Tudor dynasty that meant a trip to the library and several books would have to be read.  Now, one can get a basic sense of this time period from the excellent TV program “The Tudors”

I really could not get enough of this T.V. show and felt that instead of simply wasting time and “frying my brain” as they use to say I was actually improving myself and becoming smarter!  This put me on the lookout for more entertaining stories regarding English history and I recently found “The Pillars of the Earth.”

One part of me says, “HEY, this is entertainment, not knowledge!”  But when I check certain facts on Wikipedia I find they match up pretty well.  The question is, just because these shows are throwing in soft porn and a bit of excitement, does this “knowledge” make it lesser than knowledge obtained from a book?

To add a bit of weight to this question, I believe when the TV was invented some thought it would replace books as a medium for the transmission of knowledge.  Of course this did not happen.  I’m not sure what reasons there are but I would imagine that TV simply cannot deliver the same amount of depth that one will find in a book.  But this begs the question, what if the person on TV was reading a book?  Therefore, does the medium really matter?

4. Books vs. the Internet

I would ask, “What is the difference between words on a screen and words on a printed page?”  Put this way I would say none at all.  Rather it is the distracting amount of information that continually beeps, pings, scrolls and so on that would make us “distracted.”  The internet makes finding information very easy and to demonstrate why I believe the internet to be superior is the following example.

Today I read an article on the BBC entitled “1066 and Baby Names”  This is an article about the Norman invasion of England and how the Anglo-Saxons adopted their names and way of speaking.  As I very much enjoy language it quickly added to my mental library.  Yet, should I have entered an actual library, this information would have been buried in some esoteric tome which I would never have found let alone looked for.

Instead, my Google Reader informed me of it and with a simple click and 4 minutes of spare time I thought of myself as “becoming smarter.”  Then, I used my previous store of knowledge to apply this new information to all sorts of topics such as:

1. The Political Climate

– Many people are saying that everyone should “speak English” if they live in America.  Yet, it was quite amusing to discover that many of our words are actually French.  Then I thought that in 1066 France really didn’t exist in the form we know today.  Then I thought about how people from Normandy in France like to differentiate themselves from the rest of France.

I really liked this point.

“Pig is English in origin, pork is French. Sheep is English, mutton is French. Cow is English, beef is French. When it’s in a cold and muddy field covered in dung, it’s named in English. When it’s been cooked and carved and put on a table with a glass of wine, it’s referred to in French.”

If this is the case, then people telling us to “Speak English” really mean “speak a version of English that I understand even though it might be a mix of Anglo-Saxon, French and others which morphed over time and now retains it’s own American dialect and has become something much different from the English of the past 1000 years.”

HEY, I just made a discovery!  Perhaps it is not idiotic to say “Speak American” as that is exactly what we are doing!  Why do we not call this jumble of sounds we utter simply “American” instead of “English?”

The reason is that if we try to figure out where “English” came from we are going to get seriously stuck in a hole that we cannot climb out of in order to make our political point about why everyone should speak “English.”

Freedom Fries anyone?

2. Linguistic Trends

Besides, even if we say “speak English” there are different strains of English running right through America!  Just look how complicated it becomes!

As we can see, there are various versions of English spoken throughout the United States.  In some places, such as in New England I really have no idea what they are saying!  So this just proves my point that when people say “Speak English,” they really mean, “please speak something that I can understand.”

Sounds a bit selfish wouldn’t you say?

Further, if we look at the English dialects in England then we are going to become very confused.  For a very humbling experience, please look up “Cockney” and try to understand anything those people say.  I’m not even sure if the English people consider that as English!  And to add to the confusion, I’ve just lumped all of England together and called them “English” which I am sure they are not going to like.

But, I’ve gotten off track.  This post is about whether the Internet makes us smart, stupid or just more informed.

I really went off on a tangent there concerning the English language and trying to make a political point.  Now, would I have even had these thoughts without the internet leading me to the 1066 article?  If the internet was not here, what would I have done in that amount of time?  Just stared out the window?

Therefore, in conclusion I would say the internet can make us “smarter” if we are able to connect the dots regarding new information and what we have stored already in our mental library.  If the individual cannot do this and are just a “collector of facts,” then I would say the individual has become more “informed.”

Yet, if the individual was not able to read this entire post, had to check the Facebook, E-mail and Instant messages 1000 times and believes this post to be about Freedom Fries, then I would say yes, the internet makes us stupid.

As for me, I’ve reached the end of my ability to concentrate and must find out what my friends on FB are up to or I shall go absolutely MAD!  BLOODY MAD I SAY!

(And look at that will you… My conclusion at the beginning was that the internet made us “more informed” but by the end of the post it turned out to be all three!)

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! (^.^)/


  1. I actually find the definition of 'smart' very helpful in this connection.
    I think that what the internet can help us in terms of mental agility is that it allows us to be exposed to ideas and claims and – importantly – lets us interact with them. The internet creates competition among ideas that forces ('forces' may be a strong word but I often feel forced – in a good way) us to challenge the proposition and build a different and better one in stead.

    I don't see smartness or cleverness in terms of the amount of data stored in my head. It is the ability to connect, create and present concise ideas that make me 'smart'.

    My latest example was an article commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima. The writer went into the effects on world history and politics that the A-bomb had had. He was immediately slammed for his claim that the bombing had something to do with Japan's surrender. In stead a host of other reasons were presented as why they finally caved in. Especially, Stalin's declaration of war was given a lot of priority.
    To the best of my knowledge the Japanese General Staff's exact reasoning behind the surrender is unknown (except for the chance that it is recorded in the Imperial library that is off-limits to all researchers). The reasons for surrender put forth in the debate I read were relevant to the situation and well-argued but they were not facts. It was all speculation where each factor that was emphasized served different (political) purposes. How important was Stalin? How important was the level of devastation of Japanese cities? Why is the fire-bombing of Tokyo that killed more people that the A-bombs practically unknown in the general public? How many lives would have been lost in a conventional invasion and what would that have done to the US public? How important was the Japanese foothold on the mainland at the time? How important was the shock effect of the new weapon?
    I claim that no one knows nor can know the final answer to these questions.
    But the internet can help you look up information regarding the question and see in what context other people use that information. This can(!) make you 'smarter' and thereby you can get closer to a good answer.

    In this context TV is too slow a medium and too difficult to store and reproduce. The information you get from TV is gone when you change the channel but at least the internet has Google.

  2. Well said! I think you are smart Jonas, internet or no internet! 🙂

    I really like your point about the information being gone on T.V. when you change the channel. It is good to have something written down so it can be referred to again. But just to play devil's advocate, I'm sure there will come a time when we can store TV transmissions as easily as we store internet bookmarks. BUT, I can read and process faster written words than I can listen to a tv program so the internet is still my main source. Also, I can quickly get to the item I'm looking for more quickly when it is written then trying to get to that exact point in a TV program.

    Smartypants dances all around.

Comments are closed.