Saturday, July 31, 2010

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The short answer is no.

Is there a better way to promote your book than to frame it in the context of an internet giant?  Unfortunately, Nicholas Carr questioned Google's culpability for our intellectual demise in an Atlantic essay but doesn't use that question in the title of his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.  Frankly, the Google comment would have been a better subtitle than the rather tepid premise that something may (or may not) be happening to our melons.

Carr begins with personal anecdotes in which he admits to having trouble concentrating and maintaining a decent train of thought on his work.  He finds himself distracted by text messages, incoming email and tweets, and the allure of keeping up to date with friends on social media.  His friends and colleagues admit to similar problems.  A cynic might diagnosis these concentration issues as symptoms of middle age.  A harsh critic might point out that the lack of mental discipline is their own problem.  Carr proposes something else; use of and reliance on the internet is irrevocably changing the very substance of the human brain, intelligence, and consciousness.  In other words, it's not his problem; someone is doing something bad to him.

Brain Plasticity

A good portion of Carr's book is comprised of layman's summaries of research into how the brain works, how it modifies itself subject to use, the history of our understanding of the brain's function, and what happens when you poke a sea slug in its gills.  This was interesting and for sake of discussion I'll stipulate to all the facts he presents.  The bottom line is that, by way of analogy, the brain is a muscle that changes, grows, and shrinks depending on how it's used.  For example, cab drivers have greatly enlarged brain regions for spatial reasoning due to maintaining mental maps of their city's streets.

Other Things That (Might Have) Made Us Stupid

Carr also presents selected historical events related to technological advancements that impacted our species' ability to learn and store information.   One might think that the invention of writing was unquestionably considered a good thing.  Not so fast.  In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates opines that only a simple person would think that a written account was at all better than "knowledge and recollection of the same matters."  The great tradition of oration was threatened by "external marks" and the future of intellect was called into doubt.

As alphabets, syntax, and style evolved, books became more of a fixture in elite society.  But those technological advancements had a downside - the stratification of society.  This was further exacerbated by the early media of writing: tablets, scrolls, and parchments.  Hard to make, hard to transport.  You know how this ends: Gutenberg invents the printing press making books available to the masses.  (What I didn't know was that Gutenberg went broke after printing 200 of his bibles and his entire business was taken over by his financial backer who then made a fortune in publishing.)  Of course, the loss of the ornateness, beauty, and craftsmanship of hand-written manuscripts was decried by some as a fairly steep downside.

Your favorite bookstore today is stuffed to the gills with works of questionable value (to you, to me, to the other guy): political essays du jour, bodice ripping romances, teen-oriented vampire/sorcery tales, etc.  This isn't a new phenomena.  In 1612, a Spanish dramatist complained "So many books - so much confusion! / All around us an ocean of print / And most of it covered in froth."  Welcome to the mass market.

Carr makes all these points himself in his brief history of the written word.  Despite these historical complaints about the technological advances in writing, we are deemed to be at a good place right now.  Or were until...

Along Comes the Internet

Unlike the history of the written word as chronicled in the book, Carr says the internet is different.  It's a game changer, a rule breaker, a "distraction machine."    Searchable, scannable text.  Hyperlinks.  Comingled ads.  Carr fears these will lead to a "rewiring" of our brains that will irrevocably change the human ability for deep thought, sustained concentration, and contemplation.  He'd probably look at this article on my blog and point out that there's an embedded ad for Amazon, a  hyperlink, sidebars with all sorts of links and information, and all the other posts.  These distractions will prevent you from deeply immersing yourself in the writing and instead relegate you to wading in the shallow end.

Rather than blaming the internet, let's call it was it is:  lack of concentration or mental discipline.  There's an obvious paradox here, one that Carr himself addresses; he obviously was able to expend considerable effort to write a book and I was able to read it (in hardcover form no less).  I even read half of it sitting outside with only the birds to distract me.

I may be getting stupid but I won't blame the internet, just as I won't blame McDonald's for my weight.  I make choices, I deal with the consequences.  Certainly the plasticity of our brains is responding to the new medium for the written word and we may be developing new skills and degrading old ones.  But as history has shown, intellect continues to expand (reality TV an exception).

Keep context in mind, don't get all your information from the internet, read a book every once...  OOOOH, a new tweet.

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