See a sample reprint in PDF format. Order a reprint of this article nowTHE SATURDAY ESSAY June 4, 2010Charis Tsevis1.8 billionEstimated number of Internet users world-wideJournal CommunityBy CLAY SHIRKYDigital media have made creating and disseminating text, sound, and images cheap, easy and global. The bulk of publicly available media is now created bypeople who understand little of the professional standards and practices for media.Instead, these amateurs produce endless streams of mediocrity, eroding cultural norms about quality and acceptability, and leading to increasingly alarmedpredictions of incipient chaos and intellectual collapse.But of course, that’s what always happens. Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperbackbooks to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the newmedia will make young people stupid. This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.As Gutenberg’s press spread through Europe, the Bible was translated into local languages, enabling direct encounters with the text; this was accompanied by aflood of contemporary literature, most of it mediocre. Vulgar versions of the Bible and distracting secular writings fueled religious unrest and civic confusion,leading to claims that the printing press, if not controlled, would lead to chaos and the dismemberment of European intellectual life.These claims were, of course, correct. Print fueled the Protestant Reformation, which did indeed destroy theChurch’s pan-European hold on intellectual life. What the 16th-century foes of print didn’t imagine—couldn’timagine—was what followed: We built new norms around newly abundant and contemporary literature. Novels,newspapers, scientific journals, the separation of fiction and non-fiction, all of these innovations were created duringthe collapse of the scribal system, and all had the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the intellectual rangeand output of society.To take a famous example, the essential insight of the scientific revolution was peer review, the idea that science wasa collaborative effort that included the feedback and participation of others. Peer review was a cultural institutionthat took the printing press for granted as a means of distributing research quickly and widely, but added the kind of cultural constraints that made it valuable.We are living through a similar explosion of publishing capability today, where digital media link over a billion people into the same network. This linkingtogether in turn lets us tap our cognitive surplus, the trillion hours a year of free time the educated population of the planet has to spend doing things they careabout. In the 20th century, the bulk of that time was spent watching television, but our cognitive surplus is so enormous that diverting even a tiny fraction oftime from consumption to participation can create enormous positive effects.Wikipedia took the idea of peer review and applied it to volunteers on a global scale, becoming the most important English reference work in less than 10years. Yet the cumulative time devoted to creating Wikipedia, something like 100 million hours of human thought, is expended by Americans every weekend,just watching ads. It only takes a fractional shift in the direction of participation to create remarkable new educational resources.Similarly, open source software, created without managerial control of the workers or ownership of the product, hasbeen critical to the spread of the Web. Searches for everything from supernovae to prime numbers now happen asgiant, distributed efforts. Ushahidi, the Kenyan crisis mapping tool invented in 2008, now aggregates citizen reportsabout crises the world over. PatientsLikeMe, a website designed to accelerate medical research by getting patients topublicly share their health information, has assembled a larger group of sufferers of Lou Gehrig’s disease than anypharmaceutical agency in history, by appealing to the shared sense of seeking medical progress.Of course, not everything people care about is a high-minded project. Whenever media become more abundant,average quality falls quickly, while new institutional models for quality arise slowly. Today we have The World’sDow Jones Reprints: This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers, use the Order Reprints tool at the bottom of any article or visit www.djreprints.comDoes the Internet Make You Smarter?Amid the silly videos and spam are the roots of a new reading and writing culture, says Clay Shirky.Does the Internet Make You Smarter? – WSJ.com1 of 2Getty Images34.5 hoursTime an average American spends watchingtelevision per weekSource: NielsenMick CoulasDoes the Internet Make You Dumber?The cognitive effects are measurable: We’returning into shallow thinkers, says Nicholas Carr.Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights ReservedThis copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. Distribution and use of this material are governed by our Subscriber Agreement and by copyright law. For non-personal use or to order multiple copies, please contact Dow Jones Reprints at1-800-843-0008 or visitwww.djreprints.comFunniest Home Videos running 24/7 on YouTube, while the potentially world-changing uses of cognitive surplus arestill early and special cases.That always happens too. In the history of print, we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals, andcomplaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luthercomplained, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.” EdgarAllan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, “The enormous multiplication of books in everybranch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”The response to distraction, then as now, was social structure. Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to usecomputers. Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it’s our turn to figure out whatresponse we need to shape our use of digital tools.The case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we’ll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as weintegrated literacy. This assumption in turn rests on three beliefs: that the recent past was a glorious andirreplaceable high-water mark of intellectual attainment; that the present is only characterized by the silly stuff andnot by the noble experiments; and that this generation of young people will fail to invent cultural norms that do forthe Internet’s abundance what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print culture. There are likewise threereasons to think that the Internet will fuel the intellectual achievements of 21st-century society.First, the rosy past of the pessimists was not, on closer examination, so rosy. The decade the pessimists want toreturn us to is the 1980s, the last period before society had any significant digital freedoms. Despite frequentgenuflection to European novels, we actually spent a lot more time watching “Diff’rent Strokes” than reading Proust,prior to the Internet’s spread. The Net, in fact, restores reading and writing as central activities in our culture.The present is, as noted, characterized by lots of throwaway cultural artifacts, but the nice thing about throwawaymaterial is that it gets thrown away. This issue isn’t whether there’s lots of dumb stuff online—there is, just as there islots of dumb stuff in bookstores. The issue is whether there are any ideas so good today that they will survive into thefuture. Several early uses of our cognitive surplus, like open source software, look like they will pass that test.The past was not as golden, nor is the present as tawdry, as the pessimists suggest, but the only thing really worth arguing about is the future. It is ourmisfortune, as a historical generation, to live through the largest expansion in expressive capability in human history, a misfortune because abundance breaksmore things than scarcity. We are now witnessing the rapid stress of older institutions accompanied by the slow and fitful development of cultural alternatives.Just as required education was a response to print, using the Internet well will require new cultural institutions as well, not just new technologies.It is tempting to want PatientsLikeMe without the dumb videos, just as we might want scientific journals without the erotic novels, but that’s not how mediaworks. Increased freedom to create means increased freedom to create throwaway material, as well as freedom to indulge in the experimentation thateventually makes the good new stuff possible. There is no easy way to get through a media revolution of this magnitude; the task before us now is toexperiment with new ways of using a medium that is social, ubiquitous and cheap, a medium that changes the landscape by distributing freedom of the pressand freedom of assembly as widely as freedom of speech.—Clay Shirky’s latest book is “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.”Does the Internet Make You Smarter? – WSJ.com2 of 2

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