Re-defining Intelligence: The Death of the Renaissance Man (that includes women, too)

Posted on February 13, 2012


More information does not necessarily mean we will become more intelligent.

Information is more accessible, but what I am really concerned about is the narrowing way in which we feed ourselves information. As discussed last week, emerging social media forums are allowing users to assemble their own newspapers such as paperli, as well as the use of sites such as Facebook and Twitter, risk a narrowing perspective. In comparison to print media such as newspapers the varying perspectives possible form a Google search is an exponential increase in information. What I question, however, is the quality of this information in both its validity and bias presentation.


Over the summer I read an article on BBC World News about a similar topic: how the internet was affecting our memory. In July of 2011, two Columbia University professors published in the academic journal, Science, presented “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips”. Their research suggests a move towards increased specialization in topical intelligence. They also found that when people were presented with difficult questions, they immediately thought about a computer, and, presumably, what they could search for to gain the knowledge and find their answer. While this is a promising understanding about how Google and the internet in general is changing the way we store information, it is also important to consider the quality of the information we have access to.

Tech scholar Nicholas Carr discusses a “loss of depth in our thinking” due to the way in which we are utilizing technology to simplify access to information and as a consequence degrading the quality of intellect.  As noted in the article, “Does Google Make Us Stupid?” many people disagree with Carr.

I do agree with one major concern presented under the premise that Google makes us stupid: the reliability and verifiability of sources. While I believe strongly in free speech and therefore in a free internet I think it is more important today then ever to educate people on critical analysis and how to know when you can trust a source of information. This has always been an important skill required for respectable academic work, and although the amount of information has expanded dramatically, this is a skill needed to gain quality information irreverent to the media.

However, I do agree with Carr in that fact that the more specialized the information we feed ourselves, the more we will struggle to communicate across academic fields. This has always been a struggle, for example, arts and sciences in general: how can bio-chemist find ways to connect with a creative writer? It is interesting to think that during the resurgence of valuing the arts and academia, the Renaissance was a historic change in the valuing of intelligence across many different topics and skills: it was a valuable asset to know a little bit about many subjects. And now it seems that we have shifted in another direction, where there is simply too much information to even imagine a renaissance man. Or, maybe it is simply that the computer and the internet are the new Renaissance man and we are simply its pupil?

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