The cover for the July 2008 edition of The Atlantic asks provocatively, “Is Google making us Stoopid?” In his article within, Nicholas Carr laments that his Internet addiction has shortened his attention span, scattered his focus, made his thinking shallower, and left him less capable of slogging through War and Peace.
Hmm. Sounds like he’s come down to my level.
Superficially, the problem seems to stem from the quick pace of the Internet, the instant gratification, the skimming and scrolling and surfing and stealing—lazy, rapid-fire types of thinking that are becoming the norm.
More profoundly, the problem may result from the structure of the Internet itself. Carr writes:
The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web, the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements.
Carr makes a convincing case that the Internet is changing the way we think, but I must disagree that it is making us stupid.
Is faster thinking worse thinking?
Reading War and Peace requires sustained attention and deep contemplation, but otherwise it’s a fairly passive process. Why? Because Tolstoy has already made all the choices in it. The work is done, and it is great—so now you just read the first sentence and the second and so on.
Now imagine studying the same era online. You may not need sustained attention and deep contemplation, but you will need a whole host of other thinking moves. Every choice remains to be made. The online reader must find the right information, quickly read it and understand it and evaluate its worth, link to other sources and compare and contrast them, analyze the ideas being presented, and synthesize them into a larger picture. In a word, online readers are active. They’re rapidly firing on every last level of Bloom’s taxonomy.
Does this somehow make them stupid?
I would argue that there are many ways to think, and the rapid-fire sorting and selecting we do on the Internet is one very valid way. Carr’s lament is that of a deep thinker who has lost some of his depth but has gained a great deal of breadth. He is a mental marathon runner who, for the last ten years, had been trained to sprint. Perhaps the 26.2-mile course feels taxing now, but he’s winning at 100-meters.
I, for one, am smarter because of the Internet. As a young man, I would often wonder about something—”Who played Roy Neary’s wife in Close Encounters?” or “What is a semiconductor?”—and would walk around for days or weeks in a state of annoyed ignorance. Now I just Google it.
Am I a world-class mental sprinter, as Carr seems to have become? No. But I get by. And have I stopped thinking deeply about things? No. I’m a novelist—an inveterate marathoner.
So, if someone feels his or her mind is getting hijacked by Google, what recourse is there? Well, shut off the computer, for one thing, and pick up War and Peace. (One friend of mine read War and Peace as an ebook. Needless to say, he is quite clever. And quite strange.)
Is Google making us stupid? Only if we let it.