The Internet: The New Collective Human Intelligence?

Is technology destroying our minds? We all have relatives who seems to believe this wholeheartedly. You can’t really blame them for being skeptical with how much technology has changed in the last few decades. Our desktop computers went from a clunky tool that could be used for only a few programs with its single megabyte of RAM to a supercomputer with multiple gigabytes of RAM and advanced processing. The Internet has been an astonishing benefit to humanity, gathering and concentrating information and ideas that were once scattered broadly around the world. Far from destroying our minds, the Internet may be the next step to furthering mankind.

First off, it is important to realize that it is difficult for our brains to physically improve. Recent research has shown that many factors in the brain limit intelligence and follow a diminishing returns principle; as a certain aspect of the brain is improved, the yielded benefits begin to lessen (Fox, 2011). Energy cost is a major limitation; at two percent of our body weight, the brain wolfs down 20 percent of our calories (2011).  Larger brains correlate with more neural pathways but this only increases the energy burden (2011). Larger neurons mean that they pack less densely, increasing the distance between cells; this forces them to work harder and to strengthen their connections, requiring even more energy (2011). Packing more neurons into the brain by shrinking them would also not work because if the cells become too small, they begin to fire randomly (2011). Increasing signaling speed by making axons thicker would also add energy cost (2011). The bottom line is that modification to our brains would lead to slower processing or higher energy costs. As human intelligence is closing its evolutionary limit and as the Information Age continues to prosper, the individual mind is giving way to an alternative, the human collective intelligence, filled with the knowledge of multiple minds and fueled by the Internet.

Unquestionably, the Internet has changed the way we think. You may have noticed it (or you might not have depending on your use of the Internet). As Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows, put it, we have become “flesh-and-blood word processors” and “high-speed data processing machines” (Carr, 2011). In a time of a surplus of information, we are sacrificing the old linear thought process that progresses from cover to cover, for a more disjointed, faster process in order to keep afloat amongst an ocean (2011). In his book, Carr questions the impact of technology on our minds.  He asks, when was the last time you have been able to sit down and read a book for hours on end? You would be an outlier if you said this was a frequent occurrence. Even professionals are beginning to lose this ability. Bruce Friedman, a pathologist at the University of Michigan Medical School, has stated that he prefers to quickly skim passages from many sources (Carr, 2011; Friedman, 2008). Similarly, Scott Karp, a writer for a magazine, believes that when expanding the mind, reading short passages is more efficient than reading a 250-page book (Carr, 2011; Karp, 2008). Quickly skimming passages allows us to build more connections to external influences (2011; 2008). Essentially, the Internet has made us all less patient readers but it has given us the ability to scan and review tons of information. The linear mindset used in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution is simply not suitable for the Information Age (Carr, 2011). This change in mindset is not a downgrade but a new patch to encompass the new times, allowing us to develop the collective human intelligence.

Although the Internet has its downfalls, it has allowed the common person to gather more knowledge than previously possible. This is important if humanity is going to develop, especially if faced with evolutionary limitations. In order to analyze this surplus of information efficiently, we are beginning to adopt a disjointed mindset, one that allows us to quickly analyze passages and float from link to link. It’s too bad this makes us less attentive but it is worth it in the long run.

-Kevin Mao


Carr, N. (2011). The shallows. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Fox. D. (2011, July). The limits of intelligence. Scientific American, 305 (1), 36-43.

Friedman, B. (2008, February). How google is changing our information-seeking behavior. Lab

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Karp, S. (2008, February). The evolution from linear though to networked thought. Publishing

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