Is Google making us stupid? (No.)

The Atlantic just ran an article asking “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which two friends forwarded independently – always a clear indicator that it might be a good idea to actually read the article. (Thanks Puja, thanks Burkhardt!) And The Atlantic author Nicholas Carr does raise some important points.

Carr’s key argument is that the way we read skim texts in the web makes us lose the ability to immerse ourselves deeply in longer texts: We forget how deep reading works. And he’s right on when he observes that all of us information workers find it increasingly bothersome to sit down with a book and read it front-to-back while emails keep pouring in, Blackberries chirp, phones ring. We all, I suspect, know the feeling. It happened to me more than once that mere minutes after sitting down with a book I started fidgeting and was drawn almost subconsciously to my email inbox, basically by reflex.

However, that’s only half the story.

Our reading patterns are (or so I think) to a large portion context-based. Reading in the office, with my computer sitting next to me, is particularly hard because distractions are everywhere and interruptions are mostly legitimate and not just random noise. It’s an office, after all. (In case you’re wondering: I work freelance, so it actually is possible for me, in theory, to read in my office.) But I can’t really see the same mechanisms at work in different contexts. When I like to immerse myself in a story, a book, a long and complex text, I try to block out as many distractions as I can. Switching off my phone for an hour isn’t heretical, it’s a legitimate choice. It takes little time to get back from skimming mode into deep reading mode. (Of course, it may very well be that younger generations have a harder time doing so because they learned to read in a different way; this I cannot say for sure and I do not want to judge about.)

There’s another point in Carr’s article that I find somewhat disturbing. He compares the internet to a system like Taylorism, “designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information”. Taylor’s ethic, Carr concludes, “is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well.”

One, the facts: The internet was by no means design for efficiency. Quite to the contrary, the internet was designed for redundancy, and it’s as messy as anything: Parts are failing? No worries, it’s all decentralized. The information will find another way. The internet with it’s complex architecture is what we call an emergent system. It’s (in a way) the opposite of efficiency.

Two, the internet is not our mind. “What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the mind,” says Carr. Google is not trying to tell us how to think. It’s a system that was (and still is) built to find information we are looking for: Google serves our demands, not the other way round. Of course, always having all the information out there at our fingertips does have an effect on our thinking (just as it seems that we completely forgot how to make appointments with friends without cascade of cell phone calls beforehand). But that doesn’t mean changing back is impossible.

Three, Carr states that “in Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency.” So? Google isn’t taking any workers’ rights to personal freedom here: Computers process information, in one way or another. It’s what they do, what they’re built to do. Trying to get more relevant results at the expense of nobody and nothing isn’t a bad thing to do in itself, is it? (Of course, secondary effects like low concentration span when over-using can be an issue.) Spending “days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries” doesn’t have an intrinsic value (which, to be fair, Carr doesn’t claim), it was (is?) rather a flaw in the system, a symbol of not having access to the information one is looking for. Efficiency is a word that comes to mind, convenience is another. Opportunity is a third, and maybe the most important one here: We now have, for the first time in human history, the chance to access a global repository of information, data, knowledge.

Is Google making us stupid? I think not. Lazy, maybe.

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