Updated at 12:22 pm EST.
Google won't make Web surfers stupid, and widespread Internet use will actually improve the reading and writing skills of the world's population, most experts agreed in a new survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Pew hand-picked 895 technology experts and critics and asked them to choose between 10 different Internet-related "scenario pairs" in a new online survey. Each pair offered two different 2020 scenarios with the same overall theme but opposite outcomes.
Some of the respondents worked or were affiliated with tech companies such as IBM, Google, and Microsoft, while others came from universities and federal organizations or were identified by Pew as "Internet veterans," many of whom have been online for more than a decade.
"While many respondents are at the pinnacle of Internet leadership, some of the survey respondents are 'working in the trenches' of building the Web," the Pew report, entitled "The Future of the Internet," reads.
Divided about Google
Of the people who took the survey, 65 percent agreed with the statement "by 2020 it will be clear that the Internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing and the rendering of knowledge."
Only 32 percent of the respondents expressed concern that by 2020 "it will be clear that the Internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing and the rendering of knowledge."
Additionally, 76 percent agreed with the statement, "By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid."
Nicholas Carr is an eminent tech scholar and analyst who wrote a cover story for the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 2009 with the cover line: "Is Google Making us Stupid?"
Carr argued that the ease of online searching and the distractions of Web browsing were limiting his capacity to concentrate and turning him into a "skimming, browsing reader, rather than a deep and engaged reader."
Carr was actually one of the respondents in the latest Pew survey, and he told Pew that he still stood by his conclusions.
"The Net's effect on our intellectual lives will not be measured simply by average IQ scores," Carr said. "What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hal Varian, Google's chief economist, had a different take.
"Google will make us more informed," Varian told Pew. "The smartest person in the world could well be behind a plow in China or India. Providing universal access to information will allow such people to realize their full potential, providing benefits to the entire world."
Dean Bubley, a wireless industry consultant, argued that Google is filling the role occupied by paper for centuries. "Did Gutenberg make us stupid?"
A post-Google world
Many of the Pew respondents expressed the opinion that search engines such as Google are ultimately beneficial, because they allow people to remember less, freeing up resources that they can instead devote to critical thinking and analytical skills.
"Google allows us to be more creative in approaching problems and more integrative in our thinking," said Paul Jones, a technologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "We spend less time trying to recall and more time generating solutions."
Some of the respondents imagined what a post-Google world would look like.
"In the future, we will live in a transparent 3-D mobile media cloud that surrounds us everywhere," said futurist Marcel Bullina of futurecheck.com.
"In this cloud, we will use intelligent machines, to whom we delegate both simple and complex tasks. Therefore, we will lose the skills we needed in the old days ... but we will gain the skill to make better choices ... All in all, I think the gains outweigh the losses.”
An uncertain future
The majority (61 percent) of the respondents in the Pew survey also said they felt hopeful that information on the Internet would continue to flow relatively freely online, although some of them said they could see trouble brewing on the horizon and worried that online content could end up being controlled by "intermediary institutions that control the architecture and ... content" of the Internet.
The experts were more evenly split about the fate of online anonymity on the Internet.
Some 55 percent agreed that Internet users will still be able to communicate anonymously, while 41 percent agreed that by 2020 “anonymous online activity is sharply curtailed.”
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