Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

In this month's edition of The Atlantic, there is an article by Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, worrying about the impact Google has on our reading and ways of thinking. It is an erudite and engaging article but somewhat frustrating - where's the beef?

Carr starts out with a disquisition on how Google and the internet seem to be changing how people think, not just metaphorically but in their practices. After a few quotes and anecdotal citations of his own experience and that of others, though, he then shifts to a discussion of some other historically significant technology changes such as the impact of time pieces, industrial standardization and efficiency, and finally a little about the goal of Google in their pursuit of the perfect search engine.

He has the grace to anticipate the criticisms of being a Luddite and fearing that which is simply new. My frustration is that I wish he would find an argument and stick with it. Is the internet and Google changing your behaviors and capacity for sustained concentration? Then make that case. Do you want to argue the pros and cons of historical technology shifts? Then follow that argument through. It is as if Carr is writing his article in a fashion that bolsters his argument that over-reliance on the internet reduces ones capacity for focused argument and contemplation and leads one to hop all over the place, buzzing about but never alighting.

Carr begins to wrap up his essay with a citation from Plato's Phaedrus in which Socrates worries about the implications of writing as a "technology" for information capture and transmission. We are left almost with an implication of a Greek tragedy, we are caught in the grip of fate and will suffer unknown consequences.

Free will seems to have been abandoned. While this is a graceful essay, entertaining, and a fresh jolt in making one consider a topic, it does seem to leave out any consideration of free will. All new technologies open up the potential for human nature to be amplified for good or for ill. Can the pathways and crevasses of the internet be a corrosive locale that corrupts our capacity to concentrate and reflect deeply on issue large and small? Absolutely!

Are we fated to irreversibly cascade down that maelstrom? Absolutely not.

With three children in or entering their teen years, I am fascinated by both the potential and dangers I see in how they are acculturalizing to the internet. I have been using the internet for business purposes since it's initial evolution and have seen its huge potential. But we are at that juncture where all that potential is spilling into a broader societal context and we have few cultural, technological or legal frameworks to anticipate quite how this will play out in the next couple of decades.

What I am confident of us that we do have free will. This article smacks of those laments twenty years ago when voice messaging came along in offices and people complained about the loss of personal connection. Or of the still current jeremiads against the "avalanche" of e-mails and how that is destroying one's capabilities to focus and prioritize.

These are all tools. We almost always figure out how to use them productively. It might in the 1910s and 1920s, with rutted roads and Mr. Toad drivers, and cars breaking down and operating in (mal)functioning ways, have been impossible to anticipate the day when literally hundreds of thousands of drivers zoom along at sixty miles an hour, a few feet apart and with statistically minimal accidents. But we did get from there to here. So will we with the internet and Google and many of the chicken little concerns will seem yet again to be ill-founded panic attacks.

We choose to allow ourselves to be distracted or not.

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