Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Is Google making us stupid?"

Nicholas Carr poses that question in the July/August 2008 Atlantic:

Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going — so far as I can tell — but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what's going on. For more than a decade now, I've been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.
As Carr acknowledges, written language and the printing press have also occasioned alarm. I would argue though that it's not Google that makes us stupid but continuous partial attention. It's possible to read online selectively, even deeply. (Mark Hurst's Bit Literacy offers some guidance, and adding an ad-blocking extension to one's browser makes for a much less distracting environment.) And it's possible to use Google as a focused investigative tool. Google is certainly a fine means to the sort of inexpert, everyday knowledge that underwrites what E.D. Hirsch long ago called "cultural literacy." And Google makes possible various kinds of informal research that would otherwise be tedious or unmanageable. In such ways, Google can make us smarter. Information though is not the same as knowledge, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin's dream of "all the world's information directly attached to your brain" suggests a pretty dismal, Gradgrindian model of human potential.

I'm planning to assign Carr's essay as a first piece of reading in the freshman writing class I'm teaching in the fall. Whether to read it online or in print will be, I hope, a subject of discussion.
Related posts
"A lot out there is conspiring to distract you"
George Steiner on reading
Words, mere words
Zadie Smith on reading

comments: 4

Lee said...

Carr is looking for the underlying causes of continuous partial attention, and I fear he's on to something in terms of cognition - not Google alone, but the entire online effect. I do no multitasking at all except writing on a computer with the Net always available and find that I too am reading, writing, and possibly thinking in different ways than a few years ago - worrying ways. Even though I acknowledge the ease of Search, the very effort that is lost is bound to change our mental as well as social lives, in the same way as the shift away from the workshop has changed not just our material world, but our whole understanding of art.

Lee said...

You might also want to have a look at the Edge debate based on Foreman's The Pancake People, which Carr referenced. Some very interesting points, particularly Rushkoff and Goldstein:

Lee said...

And see this link too for a collection of relevant quotes:

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Lee. I'm on the road and will follow these links when I'm back at the computer. : )