An interesting article by Tim Wu in The New Yorker:
A well-educated time traveller from 1914 enters a room divided in half by a curtain. A scientist tells him that his task is to ascertain the intelligence of whoever is on the other side of the curtain by asking whatever questions he pleases.
The traveller’s queries are answered by a voice with an accent that he does not recognize (twenty-first-century American English). The woman on the other side of the curtain has an extraordinary memory. She can, without much delay, recite any passage from the Bible or Shakespeare. Her arithmetic skills are astonishing—difficult problems are solved in seconds. She is also able to speak many foreign languages, though her pronunciation is odd. Most impressive, perhaps, is her ability to describe almost any part of the Earth in great detail, as though she is viewing it from the sky. She is also proficient at connecting seemingly random concepts, and when the traveller asks her a question like “How can God be both good and omnipotent?” she can provide complex theoretical answers.
Based on this modified Turing test, our time traveller would conclude that, in the past century, the human race achieved a new level of superintelligence. Using lingo unavailable in 1914, (it was coined later by John von Neumann) he might conclude that the human race had reached a “singularity”—a point where it had gained an intelligence beyond the understanding of the 1914 mind.
The woman behind the curtain, is, of course, just one of us. That is to say, she is a regular human who has augmented her brain using two tools: her mobile phone and a connection to the Internet and, thus, to Web sites like Wikipedia, Google Maps, and Quora. To us, she is unremarkable, but to the man she is astonishing. With our machines, we are augmented humans and prosthetic gods, though we’re remarkably blasé about that fact, like anything we’re used to. Take away our tools, the argument goes, and we’re likely stupider than our friend from the early twentieth century, who has a longer attention span, may read and write Latin, and does arithmetic faster.
Go here to read the fascinating rest. The internet of course does not augment our brains. Like a book on a table it is a tool, but the effectiveness of the tool is based completely on the ability of the user to profit from it and to skillfully wield it. Some people can become quite proficient at internet research and can put on a show of deep knowledge over a wide variety of topics, but it is only a show, an illusion.
For example, yesterday I was doing legal research on the question of whether a debtor in bankruptcy can keep money in a bank account that derives from social security. This is a fairly hotly debated topic and I read about 20 cases on the subject on the internet, the cases ranging from Illinois state cases, to Illinois Federal bankruptcy cases, to Federal district and circuit court cases outside of Illinois. Many of the cases would have been very difficult for a layman to interpret. Even knowing the legal jargon and the appellate structure of both Illinois and the federal system, much of the all important distinctions and nuances of the cases would have escaped all but fairly seasoned practitioners of bankruptcy.
This of course is the problem of the internet: it can give a user a thin surface knowledge of most subjects, but it really does not provide an expert level mastery of a topic that usually requires years of work and lots of practical experience. The internet is a tool, but it is only one tool. If we forget that fact, we take a convenience and an amusement, and make it a false idol.