Is Google Making Us Stupid? (Think, and think again)

In this month’s The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr explores human cognition in the light of the Internet. Rhetorical extremes notwithstanding(1), it is a worthwhile read. His premise: the way we use the Internet is fundamentally altering the way we think – and not for the better.

I read Carr’s article at a coffee shop. To get through it without distractions, though, I had to shut my laptop and read off the printed page. It was, I must say, a fitting way to experience the article. In fact, try this: Pause for a minute. Click this hyperlink. Read the original article. Go ahead; I’ll wait…

By habitually drinking from the firehose of the Internet, Carr argues, we’re losing our capacity to engage in protracted, concentrated reading or thought. Reading is an imprinted – not instinctive – feature of our brains, so consuming content in dramatically new ways may actually alter the neurological networks in our brains. In short, we are learning to think in “the way the Net distributes [information]: in a swiftly moving stream of particles”. (Are we hard-wiring ourselves to be hyperactive information whores?)

To lose the capacity for “deep thought” would be truly lamentable, and it’s a worthy concern. This is one of the reasons I enjoy the periodic discipline of powering off the computer, phone, and iPod in order to engage in concentrated reading.

Nevertheless, although we may engage in long-form reading less frequently, as long as we retain the capacity for such pursuits, this is no tragedy. What Carr decries as the breakdown in critical thought may be equally heralded as the next great evolution in thought culture.

In short, we’re gaining the newfound ability to navigate torrents of information in a controlled and intentional fashion. This is not a tragedy. This is a breakthrough.

What this trend really demonstrates is a priority shift in the light of our new attention economy. With a glut of information and a scarcity of time, one of the most critical “new” skills is the ability to effectively manage the information we encounter. Our tendency to surf from site to site simply reflects our perception of the decreasing marginal utility of spending time on a given page. The fact that we can do this faster than before means we’re growing more adept at processing information quickly, and – again, assuming we haven’t lost the ability to parse large systems of data – this is a good thing.

Carr’s second concern addresses the commoditization of information and, by extension, knowledge itself. Google’s widely stated purpose (and, arguably, the purpose of the Internet) is to capture and organize the world’s information. Carr compares this process to assembly line efficiency research performed in the early 20th century, and implies that knowledge workers will soon be the next moral casualty in the workforce: just as standardized workflow procedures replaced experience and intuition on the factory floor, so Google will replace the independent thought of today’s knowledge workers.

He’s right, on one level: knowledge acquisition in the traditional sense may become irrelevant as information becomes more quickly and accurately accessible.

But his commentary assumes that knowledge qua knowledge is the apex of our information-based society, and that offloading our responsibility for knowledge (to Google et al) is tantamount to abdicating our intelligence. Quite the contrary: democratizing knowledge will clear the way for true intelligence to stand out. Interestingly, Carr notes that research which once took him days to perform now takes hours. Why does he not recognize that this will enable the brightest minds to vastly increase their intellectual output? Old-world research is out; intelligent synthesis by capable minds is in.

To conclude, while Carr does not (to this reader) adequately establish that the Internet is stunting our intelligence, he is correct in highlighting some of its pitfalls. In the frenzy of “hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws”, we can become distracted and lose our critical edge. (By the way, did you read his full article? If you couldn’t dream of reading something that long – or tried but were too distracted to get through it – you may have a real case of Internet-onset ADHD. In that case, heed Carr’s warning, set your autoresponders, retire to a cabin with some books, and read for your life!)

The key, as with all areas of knowledge, is to stay alert – avoid intellectual laziness – and engage with the information we encounter. The Internet is merely a tool. Use it as such, and it will never replace your mind.

(1) Carr never poses the question “Is Google making us stupid?”, though it makes an eye-catching title and probably sold more than a few copies of the magazine.

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