This Is Your Brain on the Internet

The estimable Kevin Drum thinks I’m wrong about the way the web teaches us to think:

I find this an enormously appealing argument. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any evidence at all to suggest it’s true. Understanding “broader categories” — the context into which individual pieces of knowledge fit — requires you to read books. Full stop. Maybe someday it won’t, but it does now.

…I’d love to be wrong about this. But I’m not. If you want to understand the world, not just collect endless factlets, you still need to read books. If you do, the internet makes you smarter. If you don’t, it makes you dumber.

Drum’s right — but I think I may not have been clear about what I meant. My point wasn’t that people will cease to read books, but rather that it will reshape how we recall the information we gather from them (and other information sources). So, rather than become repositories of detailed knowledge about our favorite subjects — baseball, film, health-care policy, presidential history — able to spout trivia on command, we’ll become indexes of what’s known. You won’t memorize charts and tables, dates and locations, names and details, or even the finer points of various arguments and interpretations. But you’ll know where to find the details if you need them. Like an index! There just won’t be as much need for anyone to personally master all the details in order to be conversant in their field of expertise. In turn, your knowledge-base will be broader, more connected. It’s a trade-off — comprehensive knowledge of a limited number of subjects on one hand vs. shallower-but-wider understanding on the other. Know less, have access to more.