Stupid making us Google

A response to Carr

During the summer of 2008, Nicholas Carr posted an article within 'The Atlantic' magazine assessing the effects of the Internet and Google on common users. He professed acknowledgment and hesitant praise of the benefits of using Google and the Internet, but primarily drew upon sources, studies, and commentary that wholly blame the Internet for stifling users' ability to focus, write, and read in a deep manner. At first glance, Carr's article seems well-rounded and to be presenting a case for societal downfall if the prowess of the Internet and companies like Google aren't tamed. After deconstructing, dissecting, and analyzing Carr's statements and the way he utilizes sources, it becomes clear that his opinions are operating from an age-old fear of change and the tendency of technology to propel us into the unknown. Though Carr's suspicions and warnings of Google and the Internet make valid points, he adheres too firmly to an incomplete perspective. He only references heavy users of Google and online text - colleagues, students, academics, and the like - and fails to discuss the state of mind and habits of mild users. After taking all pros and cons of the Internet and Google into consideration, it's strikingly difficult to say that such technological wares do not fully benefit society.

Carr claims that the search engine Google is to blame for the newly acquired short attention span he and some of his colleagues are experiencing while reading. Since a vast amount of information is available within 0.003 seconds, Internet users have no need to read through large texts for information, and Carr professes that this is why he is no longer is he able to read a long passage with full and complete attention, or at least the way he used to read before. So, in a world with Google, one cannot, or at least a person who utilizes the Internet and it's search engines, fully read an article or a book, let alone take the time to think about what exactly it was that was just read, right? Quite the contrary; Google has been able to shape and reshape our minds and brains by giving us new tools and ways to pick up information as well as share it with others.

So what is it that's causing Carr to feel as though he can no longer hold a read thought for long? In Carl Zimmer's article 'How Google is Making Us Smarter', Zimmer claims that our mind consists of more than just our brain, but is actually made up of both the brain in our skull as well as the environment we are subjected to. He says that although we'd like to think that our brains record everything around us, the truth of the matter is that it only records what it needs to know, as exemplified by Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois and Christopher Chabris at Harvard University. They performed a test asking subjects to watch students running around each other passing a basketball and keep track how many times the ball was passed by members of one of the teams. Sometime during the game, a student in a gorilla costume walked through the court and surprisingly enough, many of the subjects reported that they never saw the gorilla! This shows that their brains didn't pay any mind to the gorilla as it was regarded as extraneous since it was not part of the task. Clark continues this idea by stating that our brain does not recreate photocopied images of the world around us, but rather focuses on tiny snippets extracting only the information we need. (Zimmer) So, for Carr to claim Google is at fault for making his brain work in a new way in which he does not soak in loads of information does not make sense - his brain is simply gathering pieces of information it deems necessary for some reason or another.

Another reason Google is not at fault for making a person lose his or her attention span is because attention spans have long been shortened and/or depleted. In the article 'Is Stupid Making Us Google?', author James Bowman expands on the idea that it is not Google's fault many people are now facing the short attention span predicament, but rather the fault of the junk culture we are in and the lack of care that educational mentors now have towards their respective studies. He elaborates on his perspective by talking to Professor Mark Baurlein, an English teacher at Emory University and former director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts and author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. Baurlein says one cannot blame the student for never having learned how to truly learn, and instead claims that students have "been 'betrayed' by the mentors who should have taught them better" as well as saying the very concept of intelligence has been molded into something new. (Bowman 75-80) In Bauerlein's book, he states, "the model is information retrieval, not knowledge formation, and the material passes from Web to homework paper without lodging in the minds of the students." (Bowman 75-80) So if the value of being 'intelligent' or being someone who is 'knowledgeable' now simply means being able to regurgitate facts the way Google or Wikipedia does on a computer screen, then it is not right to blame the Internet or search engines when it is the instructors of education and those who are supposed to foster the innate pursuit of knowledge that have never forced the student to go deep in their studies and thought process rather than going shallow and wide. The truth of the matter is that this problem is not new, and, as Bowman explains, goes back at least three generations, a time before the personal computer existed let alone was used as a means for education. (Bowman 75-80) So rather than continuing to point fingers and blame one another, it only makes sense to realize and accept what has been happening to the concept of learning and becoming educated and then work from there towards molding the system into what it is needs to become - knowledge and thought, not just information and regurgitation of facts.

Along with bringing the world to our fingertips, Google has also proved to have done a world of wonder and has more than likely saved lives in the emergency room, as reported by critical care physicians in the Greater Sydney area of Australia. (Reid et al., 2009) Google groups, a site parented by Google which allows the storing of files online and distribution of information, has allowed team members - physicians, administrators, nurses, etc - in an Australian emergency room to constantly be able to communicate and share information, within seconds, that the entire team needs to know. EMTs in an ambulance can give updates to all physicians as to what is coming to them, physicians can contact nurses when they need to in regards to patients, and administrators are able to get into contact with anyone and/or everybody when they need to. The Google group platform has continued to work so well in this critical care setting, the ER team reported they expanded its use from being only for online discussion to using it for governance purposes. (Reid et al., 2009)

Search engines have actually proven to be mentally stimulating in a way in which it is thought that it might actually improve brain health. A study was done by members of UCLA's Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences around the end of 2008 to see what different regions of the brain were activated when using a search engine and which regions were activated while reading text on physical paper in order to compare the two. The doctors tested twenty-four people whom were neurologically normal but purposely selected twelve whom had minimal experience with search engines and twelve who had more experience with them. The study found that reading plain text activated brain regions controlling language, reading, memory, visual abilities, etc to more or less the same extent in both groups. However, when the groups moved on to the Internet search engine task, it was found the group with the minimal Internet experience showed activation patterns more or less like the same pattern as before, but it was the experienced Internet users that "demonstrated significant increases in signal intensity in additional regions controlling decision making, complex reasoning, and vision, including the frontal pole, etc...." (Small, M.D., Moody, Ph.D., Siddarth, Ph.D., and Bookheimer, Ph.D. 116-26) This study proves Internet searching draws a greater extent of neural circuitry that otherwise does not show up when reading text pages, but this only works for those who are already familiar and comfortable with the Internet. (Small, M.D., Moody, Ph.D., Siddarth, Ph.D., and Bookheimer, Ph.D. 116-26)

The reader can now understand why there is nothing unnatural or foreign in today's day for the brain to be comfortable in relying on the Internet for information. Search engines have been shown to activate different regions of the brain in ways normal paper text reading does not, and if our brains now look to Google as its extended mind, who's to say there's a problem with that? Rather than pointing fingers and creating issues, it would be in the greater interest of everyone to understand what Google does do to the brain and mind, and continue progressing from there towards a happy place. Unfortunately, it seems that Carr wishes to draw more upon fear of technology than to objectively embrace and explore these changes as positive for society.

In the year and a half since Nicholas Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid" hit 'The Atlantic' magazine, there has been an uproarious response from academics, socialists, philosophers, bloggers, writers, and countless others; responses have been mixed, though all quiet compelling. Carr's stance is obvious and, though he offers opposing criteria toward his belief that Google and the Internet are suctioning the strength and agility out of our minds, he does it without conviction and much emphasis. More importantly, he doesn't offer any credible sources within his article that reflect the total advantages of having a technological benefit such as Google and the Internet. In this sense, Carr offers an argument that addresses one obvious perspective and neglects the details of the other.

"Is Google Making Us Stupid" cites several sources of commentary, factoids, and seemingly professional interjections that outline his fear and stress over the Internet. For example, he uses a literary and philosophical figurehead - Friedrich Nietzsche - to support his theory that Google and the Internet are making it difficult for users to focus and read substantive literature found offline. In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche was approaching the age of 40 and his ability to write was becoming hindered by physical decline. He was succumbing to terrible headaches, nausea, blindness, and deteriorating health that made it difficult to write, think critically, and function in general. As Carr points out, Nietzsche purchased a typewriter to ease the process of writing and noticed a change. According to Carr and the source examples he cites, Nietzsche's writing became "tighter, more telegraphic" (Carr) upon frequent usage of the typewriter. The German media scholar, Friedrich A. Kittler, describes the change of style and deterioration of Nietzsche's writing abilities after he begins to use the typewriter; Kittler states that under the sway of the machine, Nietzsche's prose "changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style". (Carr)

Although perhaps innocent, it seems that Carr uses the effects of writing technology on Nietzsche to add striking impact to a point that is actually pretty irrelevant and full of historical gaps. Nietzsche's changing writing style could have been primarily the result of his physical decline and harrowing mental state. Carr did not mention that Nietzsche suffered psychological and physical illnesses that peaked a few years after the typewriter purchase and that, soon thereafter, he was admitted to psychiatric hospitals before dying at the age of 55.

Despite drawing on some shaky sources and a biased mind, Carr remains reasonable and takes the effort to recognize how readers may perceive him. Carr admits that he is not the first individual to warn of the dangers that come packaged with new technology. He even admits that he may be called a Luddite, and that he is hardly the first. The earliest indication of a possible Luddite was a man who actually lived long before the 1800's when the term "Luddite" came into being. According to Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates was opposed to a form of technology that is so basic by modern standards that many can hardly imagine the world without it. Socrates believed that the invention and spreading use of writing would ruin social relationships and destroy memory. These arguments are already close to those presented by Carr. Socrates also argued that with the invention of writing, the human mind would no longer need the critical thinking skills that influence what we commit to memory and what we discard. He stated,

The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves."

To a certain extent, Socrates was correct; the recall of the early philosophers makes it clear that their memories were most likely superior to those of the majority of people today. In this way Carr is most likely correct as well, the advent of the Internet is certain to change the way that people think and the way that our minds function. However nobody would argue that the invention of writing harmed civilization more than it helped. Ironically, we would have no idea that Socrates opposed writing were it not for his student, Plato, writing his arguments down. Philosophy is about the pursuit of truth and knowledge, and even Socrates, were he alive today, would have to agree that nothing has made this more possible than writing, and by extension now, the Internet.

Carr acknowledges Socrates fears and their similarity to his own, but what he does not seem to realize is just how similar his own are. To support his argument that the internet has harmed our ability to read deeply, he cites a study by University College London that found that visitors to their research sites tended to skim the articles and rarely returned to one once they left it. While this seems a persuasive argument, what is missing is a comparative study of the behavior of people who research material in person. When a person is performing research it is often very apparent whether an article is relevant to their topic or not. This is why most peer reviewed journals provide an abstract rather than the entire article on library sites. There is no need to do more than skim an article to see if it is what you need, neither is there any reason to return to an article that was not helpful. This is true whether a person is flipping through physical books or virtual pages. The lack of deep reading while using a research site provides very little concrete evidence that deep reading is not performed elsewhere, or performed after finding the article that the individual was looking for. Similarly, while Socrates was correct that writing changed the way the people thought and their dedication to memorization, writing became a tool that complemented memory rather than completely replacing it. On the contrary, with the use of books and notes and the wide amount of information available on the Internet, people are now able to pick and choose what is worth memorizing without losing access to the information that may be pertinent but not essential. In this way, deep thinking is made easier and enhanced by the Internet, not made unnecessary.

Carr does acknowledge that there are many benefits from using the Internet. The Internet can offer us with many opportunities that help us in various ways. In "Is Google Making Us Stupid" he writes For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they've been widely described and duly applauded. (Carr) This shows that despite his arguments, Carr understands the importance and how helpful the Internet can be. He also sees how many benefits it can have.

The benefits include educational games and programs, the ability to research information for school projects and business, the opportunity to communicate with people from all around the world, shopping around the world without leaving your house, and the opportunity to share resources and ideas with people that have the same interests (ACCM). Online classes are another benefit. Not all people have the opportunity to go to school. But with the Internet, you can get your education at home. Many pregnant woman or stay at home moms don't have the time or energy to get up and go to school. The Internet helps them obtain an education on their schedule and from the comfort of their homes. For example, on a Tyra Banks episode there were a couple of women who couldn't go to school for various reasons. Tyra gave them a scholarship to finish school online and one of the women graduated with a degree from online courses. The Internet also benefits people who physically go to school because it can help them find the research they need. There are so many articles and information on the Internet that you no longer have to worry about driving to the library or buying a magazine anymore. "The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes" (Carr). Another huge benefit is how we are able to communicate with others from around the world. If you have the Internet you can communicate with most anyone by email, web cam, messenger, etc. Another benefit is shopping online, as many people prefer to shop online because they are at the comfort of their home. Despite these advantages, however, we must still carefully observe the way technology progresses.

The technological state of society experienced a big change in 1876, when a brilliant man by the name of Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. No longer were people forced to inconveniently travel to someone else's house to have a conversation or send a letter that took days. Finally, it was possible for people to simply pick up the telephone and be in a conversation with another individual in a matter of seconds. This life-changing phenomenon set the foundation for some of the major issues most people face today. With the many developments and advancements taking place on the Internet, one might think it's one of the greatest tools that we have to date. People use the Internet for chatting, communicating with long distance relatives and even finding love. Granted the Internet has taken the way we receive information to a new level, but the underlying question Carr presented remains: is the way we now receive information beneficial, or have our overall perspectives and social practices been negatively affected? There's no question that technology has been very beneficial to our society, but it has also been very detrimental, in ways, to the people in our society - physically and intellectually. Due to the rise of consistently new technology year after year, we as a people have become more and more dependent and addicted to what's new, whether that means spending hundreds of dollars on the newest iPhone or laptop or becoming socially inept due to the decrease of in person interaction because of texting and social networks. Ever since there has been an extensive amount of ways to communicate it has not made much sense to do things "the old-fashioned way" (e.g. talking in person face-to-face). This Facebook/texting culture has produced an undeniable amount of youth that are socially introverted. This effortless way of communicating has caused us to not be used to interacting in person. It is normal to have an entire conversation with another person using primarily abbreviations and emoticons. The skills gained from going out, meeting someone and conversing are not skills that can be gained from a typed conversation.

Imagine surviving without a cell phone or access to the Internet. In today's world, most people would have to totally rearrange their lives. Due to technology, people have become obsessed with being able to reach each other in all ways possible (whether it is calling, texting, emailing, instant messaging, or via social networks like Facebook). These are all great ways to communicate, but when people start to only rely on these ways for communication it can become extremely unhealthy. If we wanted to, we could live our lives as hermits. With the Internet, we can set up a banking account online and shop for all of our necessities without ever leaving our home; we can practically live with little-to-no human contact. With all the wondrous things we use the Internet for, this is one of the things that will have the most negative effect overall. Despite the convenience of Internet relations, we must make sure we are not missing out on key elements that provide us with patience and our ability to interact at a more personal level with mankind.

The Internet is a valuable tool, allowing us easy communication and vast amounts of information - but is the way we're getting these resources healthy? "Getting information off the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant." This quote from Mitch Kapor is an extremely accurate depiction of how our minds are flooded when using the Internet. All you want is a simple drink yet you are flooded with an inundation of information to the point where the internet turns you into a 6 year old with a serious case of ADHD. In our haste for gunshot quickness, it's possible that we risk losing some of our greatest virtues: patience, empathy, and depth. It's great that our society is consistently providing us with the newest technology, but it would still be healthy for us to exercise some of those old-fashioned ways: meeting someone at their house to see how they are doing, going to an actual classroom and interacting with students, etc. After all, those are the interactions that keep us connected with one another.

Self-awareness and advocacy, balance, and healthy habits are the responsibility of the individual, but also our obligation to each other. We owe ourselves and society the effort to stay attuned to the things that may be harming us in the long run. Google and the Internet, like anything else, can be harmful when overused and abused. But all in all, web resources and the technology associated are allowing human beings to progress and evolve as time passes. Carr disagrees and can't seem to get the bigger picture in his mind, he's fixated on the way it's making him 'think' - he has the writer's ego and the writer's fear of tainted, stagnant talent. Throughout his article, Carr almost seems in a panic to convince his readers that the Internet is rampantly feeding on the quality and intellect of our culture and its respective citizens. There are problems and benefits to be had while succumbing to technological advances, but oftentimes the benefits are slower to reveal themselves - in the eye of the beholder, patience and openness should be the catalyst for thought. Fear is the destructive fury of ignorance, to be recognized but not accepted as truth.

Works Cited

  • Bowman, James. "Is Stupid Making Us Google?." New Atlantis 21. (2008): 75-80. Web. 17 Feb 2010.
  • Carr, Nicholas. "Is Google Making US Stupid?" Atlantic July/Aug. 2008: 56-63. Print.
  • Reid, C., et al. "Google governance: increasing the effectiveness of critical care physicians through the use of an online usergroup." Emergency Medicine Journal 27.2 (2009): 50-1. Web. 17 Feb 2010.
  • Small, M.D., Gary, Teena Moody, Ph.D., Prabba Siddarth, Ph.D., and Susan Bookheimer, Ph.D. "Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching." American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry 17.2 (2009): 116-26. Web. 17 Feb 2010.
  • Zimmer, Carl. "How Google Is Making Us Smarter." DISCOVER Magazine. 15 FEB 2009. Web. 17 Feb 2010.

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