Wednesday, June 18, 2008

An article worth reading (all the way through)

My friend Louse pointed me towards "Is Google Making Us Stoopid? What the Internet is doing to our brains" in the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Since I read it voraciously, I have mentioned the title to a couple of friends. Each had a strong response, but in opposite directions. One friend nodded vigorously, while the other rolled his eyes. The author, Nicholas Carr, is ready to acknowledge that "maybe I'm just a worrywart ... Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom." He goes on, however, to express his concern that "as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence".

His starting point is his own shrinking attention span while reading, and a growing similar concern being expressed by others who also do most of their reading and research online. He cites both anecdotal and research evidence, as well as theorists like Marshall McLuhan, to support his theory that "What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." Pointing out that "even the adult mind is 'very plastic''', he uses the example of how, after the philosopher, Nietzsche, switched from handwriting to using a typewriter, he observed that "our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts". Not for the better, apparently. Carr quotes a scholar who observed that "Nietzsche's prose 'changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style".

Carr quotes Larry Page, one of the founders of Google: "For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence". But Carr suggests that the Internet has re-introduced on a cognitive level the "maximum speed, maximum efficiency, maximum output" ethic which, in a manufacturing setting, produced the assembly line "industrial choreography" which many found demeaning and dehumanizing. "In Google's world, the world we enter when we go online, there's little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive."

Even Carr confesses he doesn't read more than three paragraphs of a blog, and I notice that I'm now moving into my fourth. So I had better stop here. But please don't stop with my digest of a thoughtful and thought-provoking article. In the spirit of "use it or lose it", pick up the magazine, find a summer park bench and give it the time and attention it deserves.