Critics like Nicholas Carr argue that more neurons firing (or even faster processing) doesn't necessarily mean a brain capable of lucid thinking for sense-making or problem-solving in support of sound, evidence-based decisions:
"Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain."The more interesting question to me is not about brain shape or mental depth but the enfeebled analytical muscles of an unquestioning generation of digital natives. That's not to say Carr's cautionary polemic is an indictment of GenY. I'm sure for every would-be hedge fund trader there's a budding journalist willing to hold a day job too. But we've barely begun to assess the damage of coming of age in a world where:
* Capital (not English) is the universal language of the species
* First Amendment rights are surrendered with the wave of a coupon, and
* The healthy skepticism of an informed electorate is confused for the faltering missteps of a business model (that being the demise of newspapers and the cleansing power of public investigations)
Rather than lamenting the golden age of impeachable offenses it might be more productive to consider some of these recoverable assets if we taught investigation skills to home bound couch-surfers sniffing for cheese in their own white Google lab coats. Here are a few initial thoughts:
1) Paying for information doesn't necessarily mean a vendor or an identity thief owns your credit card. Another form of payment is attention. Short of subpoenaing a suspect's surfing sessions how does one capture that?
2) The web 2.0 world is a giant echo chamber when you're trying to be heard. But if you can tune your research ear you can better understand the motivations of your search targets and the social circles that they travel in.
3) With the advent of suggested search Google is now in the business of completing your thoughts for you -- or at least sketch them out early enough to reward their Ad Word buyers for their advertising dollars. Other than to follow the herd there is no useful purpose to keywording one's way through a Google-based investigation.
4) A stealth researcher doesn't file FOIA requests or hack into the hard drive of a person of interest. They can use frameworks like Oceans, Lakes, and Ponds to determine where to search and source conjugation in order to determine what to believe.
5) It's not just about the right approach. The right tool-set is essential for knowing what evidence passes the smell test and comes with the pattern-matching potential the researcher needs to press their case. Here's what Carr has to say about the random and undisciplined way that critical mental thought rolls out to sea in most search sessions:
The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system. When facts and experiences enter our long-term memory, we are able to weave them into the complex ideas that give richness to our thought. But the passage from working memory to long-term memory also forms a bottleneck in our brain. Whereas long-term memory has an almost unlimited capacity, working memory can hold only a relatively small amount of information at a time. And that short-term storage is fragile: A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind.That buffer that Carr finds lacking in working memory is a reservoir of resilient research exhibits called an RSS reader. Consider the sound operation of one to be the price of investigation entry.
So that's the start of teaching Gen-Yers how to teach themselves at the Academy of Higher Skepticism. When those questions become the properties of digital natives, the immigrants will feel a whole lot better about turning over the messes of our creation. We'll also stop waxing nostalgically for the big three networks, the Sunday papers, and paid subscription media.