Are we losing our ability to think critically?

Thinking critically
Samuel Greengard writes in the latest issue of Communications of the ACM on how some experts believe that computer technology might be affecting people’s ability to think deeply.

“We’re exposed to [greater amounts of] poor yet charismatic thinking, the fads of intellectual fashion, opinion, and mere assertion,” says Adrian West [, research director at the Edward de Bono Foundation U.K., and a former computer science lecturer at the University of Manchester]. “The wealth of communications and information can easily overwhelm our reasoning abilities.” What’s more, it’s ironic that ever-growing piles of data and information do not equate to greater knowledge and better decision-making. What’s remarkable, West says, is just “how little this has affected the quality of our thinking.”

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Note that the magazine’s editorial is about open access to the magazine’s online contents, and even reading that editorial requires a subscription. Sic. Here a short excerpt.

“The problem with the “information wants to be free” principle is that “free,” per se, is not a sound business model. The current implosion of the U.S. newspaper industry certainly testifies to that claim. Having been personally involved with an open-access publication for about five years now, I have come to realize that publishing has real costs. Any publishing business model must account for these costs. Even “free” must be monetized! […]

As for ACM’s stand on the open-access issue, I’d describe it as “clopen,” somewhere between open and closed. (In topology, a clopen set is one that is both open and closed.) ACM does charge a price for its publications, but this price is very reasonable. (If you do not believe me, ask your librarian.) ACM’s modest publication revenues first go to cover ACM’s publication costs that go beyond print costs to include the cost of online distribution and preservation, and then to support the rest of ACM activities.”


  1. Sic. +1: ACM (and as far as I know IEEE) misses a huge opportunity to spread solid software engineering skills by charging for articles. Given the openness of the rest of the field (and the progress fostered thereby), this practice is extremely disappointing.


  2. “The problem with the “information wants to be free” principle is that “free,” per se, is not a sound business model. The current implosion of the U.S. newspaper industry certainly testifies to that claim.”

    Actually, the implosion of the newspaper industry has little to do with “Free” as a business model – in fact the newspaper indsutry is perhaps the one place that the “Free” model has traditionally worked quite well. Free newspapers are fairly commonplace in most cities and have been for a long, long time. Newspapers didn’t just start giving away content with the rise of the internet – it’s been the fiber of the industry’s model since its inception. Give the content away and sell ads around it.

    No, the industry’s troubles have much more to do with the sort of things that are bringing down the US auto industry – which never gave anything away. The industry lost touch with the shifting sands of the culture on which it was built. News organizations became too big, too bloated, too concerned with creating shareholder value, too invested in runaway executive compensation, too disconnected from the communities and people they served. The current collapse is the result of a macroeconomic shift – not the microeconomics of news media.

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