Google Is Making Me Stupid


by Chris Bodenner

The Pew Research Center recently released an opinion survey of nearly 900 "prominent scientists, business leaders, consultants, writers and technology developers" regarding the impact of the Internet on intelligence and learning. The lead question was the Nick Carr-inspired, "Will Google make us stupid?", based on his ever-popular Atlantic cover story. Carr's essay was especially formative for me. I have re-read it several times since working for the Dish, in an effort to cope with the never-ending fire hose of information that the job entails. His words are mine:

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. [...]

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.

In other words, your brain is forced to distinguish between fluffy prose and nuggets of wisdom within the same broad argument (as opposed to the scattered arguments of the web). Even the seemingly nonessential details you absorb from a book may fuse into new insights after bouncing around your head for a while. I, for one, come to the most interesting insights during what Julian Jaynes calls the three Bs (bed, bath, and bus), or any moment of passive contemplation after reading a long piece of writing. The condensed chunks of information on blogs, however, often remove those spaces of ambiguity - and thus opportunity for unique thought.

Anyway, below are some of the more thought-provoking quotes from the long list of Pew contributors. The first two are actually generalized statements culled from multiple people:

A fourth “R” will be added to the basic learned skills of “reading, ‘ritin, ;’rithmatic”: Retrieval. Maybe the ability to write computer code will be a necessary literacy. Maybe it will be the ability to write smart search queries.

The nature of writing has changed now, especially since so much of it takes place in public. The quality of the new material will get better over time, in part because these new social media creators will get feedback and learn.

“The Internet will drive a clear and probably irreversible shift from written media to visual media. Expressing ideas in the future will just as likely involve creating a simulation as writing an expository essay. Whether that will make our renderings of knowledge less intelligent is unclear, but I think its likely that there are tremendous opportunities to enhance it. For instance, would it be more intelligent to render our knowledge of politics in Ancient Egypt as a book-length essay or a realistic, interactive role-playing simulation?” – Anthony Townsend, research director, Institute for the Future

“Spelling and grammar have gotten worse. People don't think things through or edit as much before publishing or sending as they once did. But on the other hand, the Internet has improved my Chinese reading and writing ability. The hyperlink enables me to communicate in non-linear ways that adds layers of meaning to my writing that could not exist on paper. The fact that I can mix visuals, sound, and text when making an argument or telling a story often enhances the effectiveness of my work.” – Rebecca MacKinnon, Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy

“The question is all about people's choices. If we value introspection as a road to insight, if we believe that long experience with issues contributes to good judgment on those issues, if we (in short) want knowledge that search engines don't give us, we'll maintain our depth of thinking and Google will only enhance it. There is a trend, of course, toward instant analysis and knee-jerk responses to events that degrades a lot of writing and discussion,” – Andy Oram, editor and blogger, O’Reilly Media

“My conclusion is that when the only information on a topic is a handful of essays or books, the best strategy is to read these works with total concentration.  But when you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview. Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist,” – Peter Norvig, Google Research Director

I think Norvig nails it; books and blogs can coexist because they are complementary channels of learning. It just takes vigilance to keep the Internet from consuming us. (And perhaps a Dishtern or two.)

(Image: “Google Monster" by Asaf Hanuka, via The Daily What)