Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid? Are you kidding me??

I read an article today by Nicholas Carr called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

The gist of it is that we're transitioning from a thoughtful, deep-thinking society (i.e. one that reads books) to one which demands instant gratification and mere soundbites of surface-level knowledge gleaned from skimming our favorite websites as fast as possible. We're somehow losing an important ability to concentrate on and/or appreciate good writing.

My own view is that the internet lets you learn as quickly as you're able; to focus on the things that matter to you and skip the noise. But I'll come back to my own thoughts in a minute.

The article generated some activity on the website for Edge magazine, where extremely smart people discuss thorny issues. I was very happy to see my new hero Clay Shirky there, tearing into Carr's article.

Shirky makes a wonderful point: "The threat isn’t that people will stop reading War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to *the idea* of reading War and Peace."

George Dyson adds, "We will certainly lose some treasured ways of thinking but the next generation will replace them with something new...Perhaps books will end up back where they started, locked away in monasteries (or the depths of Google) and read by a select few."

My own take is this: I have learned an awful lot, very quickly, from the internet. In the last year alone, I stumbled onto and become very interested in (and enlightened by) the world of Complex Adaptive Systems and some of the thinking adjacent to it (such as and Without the internet, I'd never have heard about any of this because I wasn't lucky enough to get into it at University. Without the internet, even if I *were* aware of the field, I wouldn't have any way to dig into it because I have a full-time job and a family, which together don't leave me with endless days to spend in the library, hunting for relevant texts and then reading them in one sitting.

The problem is not that the internet makes information available to us too conveniently - that's a feature, not a bug! The problem is that we're missing good tools to organize, retain, and leverage the flood of useful info. More and better information is available to each of us than ever before. It's no surprise that we each eventually hit a limit of what our brains can handle - the need to enlist tools to ride the storm isn't something to be ashamed of, it's something to welcome.

To come full circle, I suppose my bottom line question is this: If Carr thinks that our use of the internet is making us stupid -- why did he put his article there?


easyrider said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
easyrider said...

OK - so I read the article, Shirky's response, and Carr's rebuttal.

Who is the “Us” that Carr fears will get stupider - academics, or the general population? I would argue that academics will not get stupider, because the very plasticity of the mind that Carr uses to bolster his argument will likely enable students in university to learn how to think and read as deeply as they do now, and only when they no longer need such deep reading, will that change. Mr. Carr himself points out that his job only requires surf-and-skim reading, so why should he lament the loss of this ability when he never uses it?

As for the general population, they will only inform themselves as much as they want to anyway, and those levels will likely not change for the worse because of the Internet. Those who will be affected the most, I believe, is the “middle ground” people, who have not gone on to formal higher education, but have maintained their natural curiousity of the world. Previously, such curious minds may have atrophied somewhat, as there was no immediate, easily accessible source of satiating information. With the advent of the Internet however, all of this information is available, in pieces that are as bite-sized or engorging as the user requires, as Johnny GT has aptly pointed out. Really, between the information found on the Internet and the books that people there can recommend (that would have been previously difficult to find, but not anymore, thanks to another Internet phenomenon,, one could, if focused enough, rival the knowledge of any given academic on any particular subject. Because the Internet is kept up to date, the layperson's knowledge could even be more accurate! Plus, since the internet allows for easy inter-referencing, one can further inform themselves on a given topic with relevant information from other fields that can provide greater perspective and context than what one might get from specialized study at school, where faculties are often segregated to varying degrees.

The bottom line, I believe is that people who were "stupid" before will remain so, but have the opportunity to expand their knowledge, should they so choose. The "smart" people will remain smart, and should they choose a life of "deep reading", I'm sure that their plastic minds will allow for it.

Johnny GoTime said...

Hey Easy, your comment inspired in me a brand new post :)