Dumber, or a Different Kind of Smart?

10.28.2013

The other day, one of my professors asked us a question that has become more and more commonplace over the past few years: “Is the Internet making us dumber, or smarter?” It wasn’t the first time I had been asked that question, and honestly, I always have a difficult time answering it. In the end, though, I go with smarter – but a different kind of smart.

If you asked me to name the capital city of Wyoming, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. There was a time when schoolchildren were made to memorize capital cities of states, though. Obviously that time has passed. Offhand, sure, that makes us seem dumber. But with a quick Google search, I can tell you the capital of Wyoming is Cheyenne, that Wyoming became the 44th state on July 10th, 1890, and that its nickname is the Equality State. If you’re up for some more boring but perhaps more important facts, then their industries include agriculture, mining, and lumber, and the entire population of the state is about 575,000 (the lowest in the nation). See? I know a lot more about Wyoming than I did three minutes ago.

Now, there are some who would argue that I didn’t actually get smarter. I just looked up a few fairly useless facts that I will probably promptly forget. And you know, those people are sort of right. The industries of Wyoming aren’t all that relevant to me. What is relevant to me, though, is the method in which I got those facts. I Googled it, yes. But I also had to figure out if my sources were reliable, and that takes an understanding of the validity of sources that didn’t exist 25 years ago, because people couldn’t just publish whatever they wanted and have it be easily accessible.

Let’s take it a step further – and this is where it becomes particularly relevant for myself. If I had wanted to see a newspaper article about Wyoming becoming a state, thirty years ago I would have had to go to a library that had newspapers archived on microfiche, find one that might have a mention of Wyoming, read through it to see if it actually did, and if I was lucky, I’d get an article about Wyoming becoming a state. Now, all I have to do is log onto one of UD’s many databases, and do a quick search. Sure, it might take a few tries to get a database that goes back as far as I want, or that has news in Wyoming, but that’s much better than having to sift through microfiche for hours. As someone who wants to do archival work as a career, knowing how to access information stored on databases is an important skill.

eager for statehood

This brings me to my last point – that the Internet has developed a whole new arena of knowledge for us to explore, beyond what is stored on it. Someone has to build websites, and databases, and operating systems. In order to make Timeline on Facebook, as much as everyone hates it, someone had a very good understanding of how to code a website, how to play with CSS to get the site to look like it does, and how to troubleshoot any errors. Besides just giving us easier access to more knowledge, the Internet has created entirely new job fields, requiring specialized knowledge and skill sets. It takes dedicated study to understand how to make a nice looking website, and it’s not something everyone can do.

Maybe the Internet allows us to be dumber offhand. Yes, we don’t know the state capitals anymore. But I will trade not knowing them for access to much deeper and more extensive knowledge, as well as the new job fields and possibilities it creates.

- Maddie McDermott ‘15, U.S. Catholic Special Collections Intern

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