I’ve been thinking about the “Is Google making us Stupid?” article that is being circulated and discussed widely among the library crowd. Below is my too-long attempt to figure out why I find the whole article so irritating:
As I read it, the article isn’t really an argument that Google is making us stupid (although a catchy title sells magazines). The central argument seems to be that “immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information,” combined with the style of writing prevalent in online communication, may cause our brains and our thought processes to change. This alleged change consists of a weakening capacity for deep concentration and contemplation in favor of “a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else.”
Carr supports this assertion with anecdotes (every sociologist’s pet peeve), and makes a clear value judgment. He asserts that “contemplative thinking” is not just different from “efficient thinking”, but that contemplative thinking is clearly a superior mode of thinking. I’m not convinced that one form of thinking is necessarily always better than the other. Instead, I’m in awe at the brain’s ability to adapt to the mode of thinking and information processing that is best suited to its current activities and environments.
When I am immersed in my regular work day of short reading, decision-making, online communication, etc., I’m thankful that my brain seems to respond quickly– allowing me to multi-task and work efficiently. When I have work that requires deep concentration and contemplation, I can create that opportunity (work from home?), and my brain seems to respond. After all (as Carr quotes in his article): “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”
Carr and his friends seem convinced that they “have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print”. Maybe they aren’t trying hard enough. As far as I can tell, deep concentration and contemplation has never come easily to human beings. People have always sought ways to escape from the everyday, and find surroundings that are conducive to deep thinking and study. The practice of meditation has been around for 5000 years (I learned that from Wikipedia). Libraries are consistently the most popular study locations (even for today’s “net generation” students), precisely because they provide the kind of quiet atmosphere necessary for contemplation. My point is that deep contemplation and careful reading has always required effort – it does not come naturally or easily, and it never has. Blaming Google or the internet strikes me as a lazy argument, a cheap shot, a red herring ….