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The Internet and Intelligence

Over time, IQ scores have been going up (the Flynn Effect), so the Internet and T.V. can’t be making us dumber, right?

A recent Der Spiegel article, Is the Internet Really Making Us Dumber? (which is also worth reading for the questions it raises about what IQ tests measure) brings up the idea that the Internet and other digital media aren’t making us dumber but are instead changing the way we think: developing certain kinds of mental skills while de-emphasizing others. So what’s de-emphasized?

One thing stands out, though: While young test subjects are particularly good at solving visual and logical tasks quickly, their vocabulary is increasing only minimally — unlike that of their parents… One possible reason for the change is that today’s young people read and write many short messages on Facebook and on their cell phones, but they rarely immerse themselves in books anymore.

(In addition to not immersing themselves in books, kids might also be participating less in involved conversations and other kinds of meaningful verbal interaction. Very young kids for instance are now being exposed to e-readers and e-books – a development that might be problematic if parents rely too heavily on them for story time. Some research shows that parents reading to kids from e-books tend to interact less with them about the story itself and ask them fewer questions than parents reading to kids from print books. That’s even assuming the parent is sitting and reading with the child, and not handing the child over entirely to the device and its captivating animations and sound effects.)

The brain could be adapting to deal with digital technology on a regular basis but there’s still a place (maybe increasingly unrecognized) for mental processing that isn’t fast-paced: rumination, patience, the ability to follow the developments of a complex verbal argument. People describe our world as “fast-paced,” and in many ways it is, but not everything about the world and our way of living, thinking, and relating to others is fast-paced (or ought to be).

Synaptic Sunday #8 – The Internet Anger edition

1) A Scientific American article asks: Why is Everyone on the Internet so Angry?

Is everyone angry? Sure, there are regular “flame wars” online, but from what I’ve seen, all it takes is a relatively small number of very angry hateful people to leave a nasty taste in your mouth if you’re reading through a comment thread. Sometimes they pile on in greater numbers if they’re targeting someone (usually for political or religious reasons) or on certain sites that seem to welcome them or encourage their anger, but all it takes is one or two to derail a comment thread (and some of them don’t do so out of anger).

Anyway it usually isn’t anger alone that’s the problem; it’s anger channeled into an aim to attack and destroy. It’s anger that defies all attempts at reasoning or having a real conversation (which, as the article points out, is difficult enough to do on the internet). But there are many civil people too who can disagree without frothing at the mouth or inflicting deliberate hurt, and there are also quite a few people who rarely or never comment on sites or post anything of their own so it’s hard to tell what state of mind they’re in as they surf the web; people who comment regularly are only a part of the huge population of internet users.

The internet is great for letting people get on a soapbox and deliver an angry rant. Is this always psychologically destructive? I think it depends on the rant. Sometimes ranting can feel good and be beneficial to your health, especially if the anger is gotten over with quickly and you haven’t damaged anyone else with it. The question is – why are you ranting publicly where anyone can see you? Why do you need the audience?

I can see people doing it to get support or open up a real debate, without necessarily being nasty. But other times these angry rants are just vile foaming-at-the-mouth attacks on others, done to slander, demean and misinform. Some people take joy in spreading misery (and in knowing that they’re out of reach of people who’d want to sock them for it). Or for whatever reason they don’t care. Maybe they underestimate the impact of their words; people often don’t consider the ramifications of what they do, and you can publish anything on the internet, instantly, without pause for reconsideration.

I agree with the point in the article in how staying anonymous yourself and not interacting face-to-face with others is a situation that encourages more verbal abuse and less accountability. It’s also a great way to get attention: saying over-the-top things drives traffic to sites and generally gets people to respond to your comments more (including with nasty comments of their own). To some there’s the satisfaction of knowing they can say or do things they’d hesitate about in everyday life – and people will listen! It’s out there. You have a voice, even if it’s shrill and hateful and rude.

A lot of the angry hateful people behave abominably when coming up against people with viewpoints or lifestyles (or biological makeups) markedly different from theirs. Online and offline they might inhabit their own enclaves of like-minded people, but inevitably they come across others and, unlike strangers offline, they get exposed online to the thoughts and feelings of these “Others”; this can be threatening and upsetting, too much to take in and too much of a temptation not to try and crush. These ‘Others’ are the enemy and must be torn down; they must be schooled and scolded and screamed at and insulted to within an inch of their life.

Do you think people are ever completely different online than they are offline?

2) Here’s a related link, with a business angle:Why We Get So Angry Online and How to Deal with the Rage

There’s a standard saying online that time passes more quickly, a lot can happen in an Internet minute. Part of the issue with rage online is that it may pass very quickly for a person who is angry, but the effects of their actions may last longer.

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