Is Google Making Us Stupid?

That’s the title of an interesting article from the current issue of The Atlantic, written by Nicholas Carr:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I’d say more, but I’m afraid I conked out after the first few paragraphs… 🙂


  1. #1 6EQUJ5
    June 20, 2008

    I find I get impatient if the writing doesn’t get to the point quickly. It doesn’t matter how good or important the writer is, if we don’t get down to business quickly, I abort and won’t come back. I have better things to do with my time than wait around for somebody to get started for real, rather than make noises about getting started.

    Wikipedia, and so much of the Internet, does get to the point quickly, as a rule. Page visits register only the number of hopeful visitors; dwell time is the index of value seen.

  2. #2 John McKay
    June 20, 2008

    I must be way ahead of my time. I’ve been getting stupider since long before Google, before the Internet even.

  3. #3 Jonathan
    June 20, 2008

    You know who’s a good writer for the so-called google generation? Hemingway.

  4. #4 Dorid
    June 20, 2008

    Sounds to me like someone is using an excuse for getting lazy. Sure, when you’re doing research the quick hit counts. But I HOPE that whoever is doing that research is actually following up with the in depth reading required to get the really valuable information. Researching through Google then complaining that you aren’t getting the depth is like licking the shell of an M&M and complaining that it doesn’t taste like chocolate.

    Google is a great way to filter or locate something you really want to read. Then you have to actually READ it.

    Reading is losing popularity, not because of the internet, which at least often REQUIRES you to read, but because of more visual media and the preconception that reading is a highbrow activity. Kids STILL aren’t being told that reading is fun, reading is cool, and reading is rewarding.

  5. #5 ephant
    June 20, 2008

    I have found that I have lost patience with reading or watching things that I’m not in control of. I can’t read a newspaper from front to back or watch television or listen to the radio. I subscribe to as many news/blog feeds as I can and scan the headlines, reading the articles that are relevant to me or following links from blogs I’ve read… I watch DVDs and listen to mp3s. I watch and read recommendations from people I trust or respect. I have a personal rule that says I never watch TV shows until after they’ve been cancelled – that way I can get the box set on DVD and watch them at my leisure.

    The radio and television bore me – I’ve spent too much time with computers where I am in control of what plays when.

    But then, sometimes, I feel like I’m in information overload – I rarely read books I haven’t read before – so much of my time is spent online reading new things that in my leisure time I re-read old books. How odd.

  6. #6 hje
    June 21, 2008

    Google favors the prepared mind.

  7. #7 themadlolscientist
    June 21, 2008

    I’ve always been a voracious reader, but my online reading habits are nothing like my treeware reading habits.

    Online I read mostly the short stuff because so much of the longer stuff is physically difficult to read. Too-long lines, too-long paragraphs, and too-small font sizes are difficult to scan and keep track of your place, especially if you’re wearing bifocals.

    Too-long paragraphs are especialy aggravating because the writer could easily break them up into shorter units. In fact, the writer should break them into smaller units to compensate for lack of control over line length and font size. Forget what your high-school English teacher told you about nailing everything together with topic sentences. That rule was made to be broken on the Intarwebz unless you’re getting hardcore scholarly.

    As for the long lines and small font sizes……. Hey, all you web designers out there: ARE YOU LISTENING? They’re 100% unnecessary! If I ruled the Intertoobz, I’d require all web pages to pass a readability inspection by a cranky 50-something-year-old. BTW, I am available, for a small(?!) fee.

    Someone mentioned Wikipedia. I like Wikipedia and refer to it a lot, but I’ve had a lot of trouble with it because the lines are far too long. Luckily I’ve found a Firefox add-on that breaks longer articles into two columns. (It’s a Greasemonkey script. No Firefox user should be without Greasemonkey. There are scripts available to tweak just about everything in FF.)

    In the realm of treeware, I’m usually reading strictly for pleasure, and I want something I can get caught up in. I seldom bother with anything shorter than 250-300 pages. In particular, I don’t have much patience with short stories because they go by too fast.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. 🙂

  8. #8 BobbyEarle
    June 21, 2008

    Dorid and themadlolscientist…

    I see myself getting lazier, for sure. In the past, getting any kind of worthwhile information meant a trip to the library, or the university book store, etc. So I have to shave, shower, that other “S” thing. Then pick out a provocative ensemble and splash on some Hai Karate…sheesh, what a drill.

    But stupider? No way. I can dig as deep as I wish on any topic with just a few seconds of typing. The ironic thing is that I find people in general are getting dumber by the day. If you spend most of your time at SB, for example, you will not see it. But take a gander at the comments at YouTube, or even at MySpace and get ready for the shock that will come when you realize that these folks are voting and reproducing.

    I don’t know if the tubes are the reason for this, or maybe I am just getting older. It certainly is a ton easier to goof off your free time with the web.

  9. #9 Derek James
    June 21, 2008

    Dorid says: Reading is losing popularity, not because of the internet, which at least often REQUIRES you to read, but because of more visual media and the preconception that reading is a highbrow activity. Kids STILL aren’t being told that reading is fun, reading is cool, and reading is rewarding.

    Do you have any actual evidence that reading is losing popularity? I hear this kind of thing blatantly asserted and taken as fact without any kind of substance to back it up. And what’s your time frame? Around the turn of the century, there was still a significant portion of the eligible population that didn’t even enroll in school, and literacy rates were extremely low compared to modern standards:

    Even in her book “The Age of American Unreason”, Susan Jacoby cites a recent study indicating that only 57% of American adults said they had read at least one non-fiction book in the past year. That actually seems pretty good to me.

    And if reading is so much on the decline, who exactly is keeping all those mega-bookstore chains alive?

  10. #10 baboo
    June 21, 2008

    When, as in the semi-distant past, you had only one or two books available on a particular subject of interest, you read them in spite of poor writing, etc. Now you can at least choose the most concise and interesting sources. And actually, I’ve read more books on more difficult subjects in the last few years than I did in the last 20 or so years before that.

    And people aren’t necessarily getting dumber – it’s just that the dumb are getting more and more visible.

    And The Atlantic is not what it used to be either, for whatever reason.

  11. #11 wazza
    June 22, 2008

    It’s always been my opinion that the internet changes the way we think in a good way. Instead of focusing on memory, we focus on organising what we know or have discovered in new ways. Intelligence used to be about memory, now it’s about thinking, and that’s a good thing, because hard drives can handle the memory, and we can handle the thinking. Humans and machines make a great team.

  12. #12 Valhar2000
    June 23, 2008

    I do not have the problem that Carr complains about, not in the least. What I have noticed is that I am far more impatient with long texts when I am reading webpages than when I am reading books. I am not sure why this is; perhaps I get tired from watching the same screen for too long, while books are easier on the eyes; or perhaps, since so many people write short and to the point web pages, I have been trained to read online documents this way, and find longer ones unfamiliar and off-putting.

  13. #13 Kristine
    June 23, 2008

    Yet in the same issue, an article by John Staddon argues that too many street signs and jumbletrons creates inattentional blindness, or selective observation. He argues that drivers pay so much attention to signs that they miss things on the road, whereas I would argue that drivers pay so much attention to the road, their cell phone, their kids, etc., that they miss signs (and thus other things on the road).

    I would also argue that you bring to Google your ability to attend. While of course such technologies will in some way “rewire our brains,” the truth is we have been rewiring our brains anyway for multitasking and for instant gratification. The cultural divide between those who can and cannot/will not attend to information was apparent to me in elementary school (I could sit still and read longer than many children), long before we acquired PCs and Macs.

    I use Google all the time, and yet I get comments from others who “google” about how fast I can retrieve the desired information. That’s because I don’t get lost in the webpages and have a keen ability to filter, something that also gets “rewired” into one’s brain in response to the internet when one is selective, skeptical of first impressions, and downright cynical about the media messages out there.

    Anyone can develop this ability to filter. It’s called information (or digital) literacy.

  14. #14 Blake Stacey
    June 26, 2008

    This kind of sweating and fretting always reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s answer to the “where are the .400 hitters?” question. He pointed out that if systematic training shifted the mean of a skill distribution upwards, closer to a hard limit imposed by physiology and physics, then the upper edge of that distribution no longer stands out as much from the mean. When we reify the extremes of a distribution, treating them as entities in their own right, we confound ourselves as soon as the distribution changes.

    If you could somehow reduce a person’s intellectual abilities to a single “scholarship index”, I bet that the right-hand tail of that curve would be shifting greatly outward in the modern age. Thanks to widespread book availability and the Internet, people who care can simply do more! Naturally, if you look only at the mean or only at the extremes of this distribution, you won’t see the whole picture. . . .

    Anyway, you can always find a self-styled intellectual to tell you that Kids These Days aren’t learning, but in my experience, it’s more difficult to hear about what the intellectuals aren’t producing.

  15. #15 Richard Goodman
    June 28, 2008

    As a high school substitute teacher, I can tell you that kids are simply not being pushed hard enough intellectually. When talking to a bright kid in one of my classes, I found he thought that what one has to do in many college courses — read a book a week — is almost impossible.

    I suppose there is hope, however. In the same school, three students last year were admitted to MIT.

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