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Are our social networks making us smart?

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Are our social networks making us smart?

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It’s a reasonably common refrain that the Internet is making us dumb.  That was famously the thesis of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, in which he argues that not only is the web altering how we think, but it’s even altering how our brain operates.  It’s a hypothesis subsequently picked up by people such as Susan Greenfield.

Suffice to say, there are just as many people that believe the opposite is happening, and that the web is making us smarter.  A new study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface is kind of sitting on the fence however.

It suggests that the social networks that increasingly form the bulk of our online usage are great at giving us access to the right information, but that doing so often deprives us of the deep knowledge that goes with learning a skill.  In other words, our social networks give us the answers, without giving us the context to understand why the answer is correct.

“When we learn by observing what others do, we recognize and adopt good information and behaviors, but that does not make us any more likely to be able to arrive at the same kind of information or behavior independently,” said study co-author Iyad Rahwan, a computing and information sciences researcher at the Masdar Institute in the United Arab Emirates.

The hypothesis is a similar one as that outlined by Carr and others, in that the web has made us exceptional at locating the information we need, but less good at learning those skills for ourselves.

I wrote recently about the role of copying and imitation in the innovation process, with it often leading to excellent results, as people look to build on and remix existing ideas rather than starting everything from scratch.  This efficiency is something Rahwan agrees with, and cites several examples from across human history to support his thesis.

The research involved asking participants a simple question, albeit a simple question where the intuitive answer was wrong.  It thus forced them to engage what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2 thinking.  To begin with, participants tried to figure out the question on their own, but in subsequent rounds, they could see how other participants had answered it, albeit without knowing if they were right or wrong.

The outcomes suggested that there was a large degree of copying going on, without the associated System 2 thinking required to figure it out on their own.  Social networks can therefore be both a powerful source of good for learning new things, but also deprive us of the deep thinking often required to really learn new things.

“It amplifies our opportunities for social learning,” Rahwan said. Provided that people seek out diverse and reliable sources of information, that’s a good thing, he said.

“The problem is that this process makes us look smarter, without actually making us smarter,” Rahwan said. “So society as a whole appears more thoughtful, without the individuals actually becoming more thoughtful.”

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