Nadworny: Web Intelligence

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(HOST) Lately, commentator Rich Nadworny has been wondering if the Web making us dumber – or smarter?

(NADWORNY) Whenever a new technology crashes the party, the doomsday prophets appear. When people started writing, Socrates feared people would not use their memory any longer. After Gutenberg invented the printing press, some worried that easy access to books would make men lazy and lessen the value of scholars.

The onset of the Web and the speed with which it seems to engulf other media causes similar worries. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" read one cover of the Atlantic Monthly last year. Since no one really reads Web sites – we just skim instead – the author is afraid that all of this skimming is starting to affect our brains. He’s worried that we can’t read books or great literature anymore.

Now neuroscientists in the UK claim that social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are impacting the brains of our youth, giving them shorter attention spans, encouraging instant gratification and making them more self-centered.

Actually isn’t that what they said Jazz music would do to Bobby Soxers in the 30s and 40s? And really, I didn’t think it’s possible for teenagers to get any more self-centered than they already are.

While I’m having a little fun with this, it is true that the medium does affects us just like MacLuhan said. We all skim online; we even read newspapers that way. Just look at how many daily newspapers have added more short news.

On the other hand, one big improvement the Web could have on us is in writing. Just as the Gutenberg press exposed more and more people to books, the Web is making authors of an awful lot of people. There are 100s of millions of bloggers around the world, each authoring Web pages with their own thoughts, ideas and rants. It’s not just that they’re saying all of these things; they have to write them down and craft them as best they can.

Recently I’ve noticed a number of blog posts about writing itself. I’m finding myself reading articles that seem to channel every writing teacher I’ve ever had, from Heather Woodworth at BHS, to Jeff Hart at Dartmouth, to Gerry Powers at BU. The blogs talk about readability stats, average words per sentence and % of complex words. I remember having to do this kind of analysis by hand for Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, the ultimate readability bar for American writers. New research shows that best-selling authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin all write this way.

And if you’ve ever worked at a business, you know that the level of writing is, well, pretty bad. Some business people can only read or write in bullets now, perhaps to minimize their own bad writing.

My hope is that the Web, blogs, social media and those readability statistics that we can all get from our Word processors, will make us into a nation of great writers – and that those we’re writing for will have the concentration abilities to actually read what we write.

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