No, Google is not Making us Stupid

ImageI finally read Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic this week at the prompting of my summer professor, Shari Worthington.  I applaud Mr. Carr’s relatively balanced take on the topic. While reading the first half I found myself making several notes, only to find Nicholas make the same counter arguments in the second half of the article. However, I believe his lingering fear over the Internet’s impact to the way we think is unfounded. For example, he says that

The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the ‘one best method’—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”

As those of us more familiar with the workings and “design” of the Internet can attest, this is simply not the case. Sure, programmers, like anyone practicing a science are always interested in perfection, but the architecture of the Internet is really more like rules to make sure the variety of technologies, designs, and people don’t step on one another. There is no grand conspiracy on how information is organized and presented to the masses. Instead, like nature, lots of attempts are put forth and natural selection determines the ones that survive until the next challenge. Sure, Google wants you to trust its organization of what is out there, but there is nothing stopping from you using other services.

Mr. Carr speaks to how he and his friends are noticing a change in how they read books. While I wouldn’t attempt to argue that as we have more and more information available to us it becomes harder to focus on any one source (my wife and I both watch TV at night with laptops in our laps), Carr makes too large a leap by saying that this is due to the Internet causing a rewiring in our brains. I find it more likely that other factors such as age, ambient light, or a smartphone buzzing in your pocket are more likely at fault. I know that when I got on an airplane and pull out a book, I get completely immersed in my reading, but if I try to do 30 minutes of reading in the living room with kids running around, I can’t get past the second page. There is also research that suggests one’s attention span declines with age.

My favorite part of the article was when Carr brings in the legendary Frederic Taylor’s time/motion studies during the industrial revolution as a lens to use to look at the information revolution.  A great approach, but Mr. Carr and I see different things through that looking glass.  While Taylor was attempting to optimize manual labor in order to drive costs down and increased productivity and profits, Carr misses that Google isn’t getting profitable by rearranging how I make breakfast in the morning. The order I make my eggs and toast is irrelevant to them. Instead, Google is pioneering methods to know which eggs and bread I used and more importantly what I’m reading while I consume them in order to put the most relevant advertising in front of me. Taylor was about maximizing profit through work optimization. Google is after profit through data gathering. The Taylor lens simply blurs this phenomenon instead of bringing it into focus.

This blurring effect seems to bleed into Mr. Carr’s analysis of Google’s Sergey Brin whom he quotes saying

Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Carr interprets this as “idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines.

Actually, Brin is conveying that if we had all that information easily accessible like that, it would maximize the productivity of one’s intelligence. And therein lies the true comparison to Taylor and the Industrial Revolution. Like factories of the time that benefited from plugging into the new electrical grid to power their productivity, the Internet fuels the new knowledge economy. Google, as the face of the Internet, is not looking to grow profit by changing the way you think. Instead, they charge a utilization fee (in the form of advertising) for plugging into their grid of knowledge.

To take this analogy one step further, while all factories with electricity were not successful, all humans with access to the Internet will not gain wisdom and new ideas. Innovation comes from pulling together new ideas from existing information. Imagine if Albert Einstein’s brain had immediate access to all of the world’s data: What other connections/discoveries could he have identified?

Carr actually touches on this point when referencing Richard Foreman‘s fear that we “risk turning into ‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” I think Mr. Foreman is close, yet misses the mark. Yes, our new ready access to information has definitely allowed us to spread wide, and by definition somewhat thinner. And while discovery can come from going deeper in the narrow stovepipe of just one area, it can also come from going wide and seeing multi-disciplinary connections that others have never seen before. This is where our new information age offers the most opportunity for innovation and wisdom.

Bernard of Chartres (a 12th century philosopher) once said that

“We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.” (source)

Likewise, Google and the larger Internet allow us to see further than those before us. If that makes us dwarves in Carr’s eyes, so be it.


5 Comments on “No, Google is not Making us Stupid”

  1. Sharilee says:

    It’s a fascinating and complex topic. What if we look at the Internet’s impact by age group? People currently 70+, tend to spend less time online. They grew up with books and newspapers and radios, then grew into TV. Research shows the Internet has little impact on their lives. Move down into the baby boomers, like myself, and you see a mixed bag. Some of us spend a lot of time online, others, like my friend the pipeline construction manager, less so. I spend a ton of time online and I find I have a harder time reading the long tomes I used to love (my brain wiring has surely changed, some due to age, some due to what I do day to day). What I’m now really good at is finding relevant info online. I’ve probably had that skill even before the dawn of the web because i’m a big reader. Now I get to use that skill everynday.

    Things get really interesting when you move into the Millenial generation. They’ve grown up with the Internet. Sure, many read long books like Harry Potter, but in repeat surveys of my undergrad classes, they all admit to spending more time online with games and social media than with books or ebooks. Most had a hard time finishing the Carr article as they kept wandering around the Web or responding to the chirping of their smartphones. Some put their ohines in the other room to get rid of distractions and still found it hard to ait still.

    I’d like to see a long-term study of brain patterns that compares the generations when they were at the same age. Carr’s recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, mentions a number of studies related to the brain’s neuroplasticity and changes seen from Web use. It makes sense to me. The more time I spend on that dang elliptical machine in the gym, the more my body is changing…painful as it is 🙂 In the same way, the more I use my brain a particular way, the more it changes.

    There are plenty of other factors to consider: video game playing habits, safety (parents are less likely to shoo their kids outside as when I was a kid), and schooling (kids now are taught using rubrics and find it difficult to figure out how to complete a project without one…this is especially tough for teaching entrepreneurship where there are few rules).

    When knew one day I’d get to combine my love of all things biology and psychology with this fascinating world of technology?!

    • Carl Knerr says:

      Great comments Shari. Thank you.

      If you are on an airplane or somewhere else where you have zero distractions (phone, computer, etc.), do you still have a hard time concentrating on a novel? I will agree that I have trouble concentrating on reading, but only because I have these things calling me. When I have no distractions, I can get totally immersed in a book still.

      I’m sure that the generational thing has a lot to do with this. It’s about norms and expectations and how you deal with those deltas.

      But let’s say, for a moment, that the Internet IS changing your brain. Do you think it is making you stupid? i.e. is different == stupid?

  2. Sharilee says:

    Ah now, I never said different = stupid. 😛 But, if we lose the ability to read deeply, are we also losing the ability to think deeply, and critically?

    • Carl Knerr says:

      I’m sure that when we went from oral to written knowledge sharing many thought we’d lose capabilities. Same when the printing press was introduced and then computers. I’m not sure we can say that there is absolutely no loss in skills, but I think we could all agree that we didn’t lose the world’s ability to have deep thought with the printed word. I have a hard time believing the same here.

  3. Sharilee says:

    You really should read Carr’s Shallows book. He goes through exactly those transitions as he discusses how humans have dealt with such major innovations.

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