Is Google making us stupid?

That’s the question Nicholas Carr poses to his readers in the Atlantic Monthly. Carr begins by noticing a frightening tendency among himself and his colleagues– the inability to digest the written word in substantial volumes. The internet makes it easier for readers to move seamlessly through different sources, skimming the information they want and discarding the rest.

Carr writes:

“When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”

Not only has the internet altered old media, but the inverse is true as well. In support of this claim, Carr cites the example of New York Times‘ recent editorial move to including in its print edition “article abstracts” which allow readers to get a quick “taste” of the day’s news.

There is, however, no good reason to assume that technology, namely the internet, is the sole impetus beyond the New York Times‘ decision. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal began giving its readers a quick “taste” of the news through its front page staple, the “What’s News” column back when the internet was still a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, during the tenure of Bernard Kilgore, which lasted from 1941 to 1967.

There are perhaps better ways of explaining the prevalence of “news snippets” such as these. First, human beings are curious by nature and have a desire to accumulate more knowledge, particularly knowledge of current events. Second, as the economy changes, people have more hectic schedules and are thus more inclined to prefer to get their news in the form of brief summaries.

I would be foolish to deny that Google and other internet companies have contributed to our collective short attention span. However, this is not where Carr’s critique ends. Rather, Carr goes on to paint Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s founders, as being behind some sort of sinister plan to replace human minds with robots.

Yes, robots.

This is where Carr’s argument becomes stilted. Carr rattles off a variety of different quotations such as this one from Brin’s 2004 interview with Newsweek: “[c]ertainly 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.”

Maybe it’s a matter of opinion, but I read Brin’s comment as indicating merely that it would be advantageous to have all of the word’s information readily accessible through one’s own mind (or at least to have a “smarter” artificial brain). To me, this is an uncontroversial assertion. (Of course it would be great to know everything there is to know!) Carr’s reading, however, is that Brin’s comment demonstrates some sort of ugly antihuman animus, waiting to play itself out when Google takes over the world.

At root, this difference in interpretation comes down to a difference in how one views intelligence. Those, myself included (at least in large part), in Google’s camp take a pragmatic view, favoring efficiency and greater access to information. Carr, for his part, rests on the notion that intelligence must contain something more than this.

Carr goes on to argue that, in a society increasingly connected to the internet, there is a risk that we will lose the ability to reflect and deliberate in the same way we have in an age dominated by print media. Carr writes:”If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.” Perhaps this debate comes down to a question of balancing the trade-offs.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that Carr at least recognizes the theoretical blind spot in his argument– namely that any argument against technological growth and for the status quo can easily be proved foolish in hindsight. Carr references Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates bemoans the development of the written word. In his article, Carr more or less advances a line of argument which is actually quite similar to the one advanced by Socrates. Carr’s argument hangs on a notion of “true” intelligence and the value of tradition. The question, then, is whether Carr can convince his readers that this somehow a unique case.

I’m not convinced. Not when I can already see the enormous benefits of the internet’s rapid, voluminous nature. Intellectual pursuits are aided as researchers can collect information more efficiently than ever before, and people in all corners of the world are now able to access information and ideas that might would have certainly been unavailable 20 years ago.

Any thoughts? Anything I missed?

Daniel Corbett