I recently finished reading Proust and the Squid

by Maryanne Wolf, a fascinating book about the biological and cognitive development behind the simple act of reading. The initial reason to pick up the book was an equally interesting article read in The Atlantic during a plane trip: ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’.

To summarize the ongoing debate, the idea is that Google is ruining our brains. The need to quickly process information bites from Wikipedia and Twitter is driving humanity into a state of ADHD where they simply cannot read an extended book. Why do you need to read a book when the answers are only a Google search away? A humorous example of this is Twilight 10x shorter and 100x more Honest.

In a society where communication is so fundamentally integral to success, the ability to comprehend and communicate via written language is crucial. In her book, Wolf rather neatly explains the premise that the ability to read does not come hard-wired into us, but instead stems from a combination of hard work and the amazing adaptability of our brains. After all, we’ve only evolved so far and our physiological equipment hasn’t changed for thousands of years.

The parallel that springs to mind is the difficult challenge of Internet literacy (aka “tech savviness” for some). It seems like instead, tech literacy should be treated as a new language, an adaptation to the way that we comprehend and process information. This extends not only to the way that we access knowledge — the adaptation to using certain interfaces — but also the ability to process and comprehend large amounts of it.

Have you ever seen an Internet-illiterate person try to use an app? Try handing a 50-year old man an iPhone, and see how much more quickly they understand dialogs, radio buttons and menu UI. Give the same phone to a 16-year old and comprehension seems nearly instantaneous.

Obviously, internet literacy by no means is an indicator of intelligence. Neither was literacy in the first place. We’ve all heard the stories of CEOs and professors stubbornly clinging to their executive assistants for All Things Online. The real implications of this idea, I think, is that Internet literacy has gone far beyond placing your wpm onto your resume. Instead, it is about having the sort of Scoble-esque brain that can read a firehose of information and content. Rather than bemoan the ability to deep read and comprehend War and Peace, we should place new emphasis on the ability to quickly absorb, process and refine ideas from a large number of data sources. The very trend that many of today’s intellectuals has become a critical element to success in the massive world of information.

You can probably get a good sense of your Internet literacy by:

  • How often do you check your email and do you have a mobile phone?
  • Do you use a service like Twitter and how often do you check it?
  • How often do you use the search bar or keyboard shortcuts?
  • How many feeds do you have in your Google reader?