In a piece with the provocative title “Is Google making us stupid?” published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr posits that the ubiquity of the web, and its role as the first place to look for information, together with the overload of information of varying quality on the web is affecting how we think, and that “Google is making us stupid.”He asserts that the brain’s now well-documented plasticity is causing it to change, for the worse, ostensibly in response to too much Googling. We skim, he says, we no longer read.
Matt Asay writes supportively of Carr on CNet . “We really don’t want to think like Google. We don’t want to speak like Twitter. We don’t want to converse like e-mail. And yet we increasingly do, as the Internet reshapes the world in its image,” he says. Blaise Alleyne writing in TechDirt, is harshly critical of Carr’s position, saying “I’m not so sure that you can make such a generalization, but something certainly seems to be messing with Nick Carr’s reasoning ability. With such a provocative title, I was expecting a little more evidence with a lot less storytelling and speculation — but I was seriously disappointed.”
I too, confess to being disappointed in Carr’s piece, though I grant him that the provocative title did get me thinking. We are now in the Year 10, AG (After Google; founded in September 7, 1998), and yes. Overall, I do read more short articles, as Carr alleges, than I did BG (Before Google), and I certainly do skim more. But I probably read more than I did, and I read more lengthy articles in depth than before, and spend much less time checking things. As I writer, I certainly do more and better fact-checking on the web, more quickly than I ever could do BG (In fact, I confirmed Google’s founding date on Wikipedia.org, in just a few seconds).
Matt Assay says, “Over the weekend, the Asays determined that we’re going to have “reading time” each night for an hour before bed. Everyone (except my 5- and 3-year-old) will read for an hour. My kids were already doing this. The change is for me and for my wife. I need to exercise my brain to think again, and not merely process.” I can’t disagree with this thought. As a sabbath observer, I don’t use computers for 25 hours from dusk on Friday night to after dark on Saturday night, and I do enjoy the quiet contemplation time, free from worldly concerns, that the Sabbath offers me. Also, I’m part of a world-wide study group that studies a daily page of the talmud (daf yomi) (the same page in thousands of study groups all over the world) and I find that the constant challenges from the other members of my study group help me to keep my middle-aged brain as sharp as possible. But I don’t think anyone can cogently argue that either Google or the web is a replacement for other forms of intellectual pursuit, but rather they are tools to be used, overused, misused, or even abused, like many other tools. (And to see how the Internet can be used to aid in better understanding of the Talmud, see Prof. Shamma Friedman’s article.)
Actually, Carr’s plaintive cry rather than making the case he tries to make reminds me more of the Luddites, a social movement of British textile artisans in the early nineteenth century who protested – often by destroying mechanized looms – against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt threatened their livelihood.
Now, it’s Carr who feels his livlihood is threatened. But at the end of the day, it’s not Google that’s making us stupid. Rather, as Jame’s Carville’s sign in Clinton’s 1992 campaign headquarters loudly proclaimed, to keep everyone on message, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Carr is simply feeling economically threatened, and is voting his pocketbook.