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Socializeee Presents: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

by on August 29, 2012


Presentation URL

Youtube Interview Nicholas Carr

Important Abstracts of The Argument

(Taken from 3 reading by Nicolas Carr and Clay Shirky)

The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. The Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”

 Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lays a different kind of thinking. The Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.

Research conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behaviour of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media said: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?” Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine,“I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.” Frederick Winslow Taylor carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Philadelphia and began a historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plant’s machinists. With the approval of Midvale’s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on various metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every movement as well as the operations of the machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then testing different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructions, like an “algorithm,” we might say, for how each worker should work.

Google’s mission is to organise the worlds information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It wants to develop “the perfect search engine” which it defines as something that “understands exactly what you want and gives you it”. Google sees that the more info we can access, the faster we can extract meaning, the more productive we became as thinkers.

Clay Shirky thinks Carr’s premises are correct:  the mechanisms of media affect the nature of thought. The web presents us with unprecedented abundance. This can lead to interrupt-driven info snacking, which robs people of the ability to find time to think about just one thing persistently. He also thinks that these changes are significant enough to motivate us to do something about it. He disagrees, however, about what it is we should actually be doing. But the anxiety at the heart of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” doesn’t actually seem to be about thinking, or even reading, but culture. The return of reading has not brought about the return of the cultural icons we’d been emptily praising all these years, the enormity of the historical shift away from literary culture is now becoming clear. Having lost its actual centrality some time ago, the literary world is now losing its normative hold on culture as well. The threat isn’t that people will stop reading War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to the idea of reading War and Peace. This link between form and theme is true of any medium. Getting networked society right will mean producing the work whose themes best resonate on the net, just as getting the printing press right meant perfecting printed forms.

He also mentions that Carr is correct that there is cultural sacrifice in the transformation of the media landscape, but this is hardly the first time that has happened. The printing press sacrificed the monolithic, historic, and elite culture of Europe by promoting a diverse, contemporary, and vulgar one. The question we need to be asking is whether the sacrifice is worth it or, more importantly, what we can do to help make the sacrifice worth it.He claims that what he finds puzzling about Carr is that unlike other critics; Carr understands the net as well as anyone writing today. Yet his contrarian stance is slowly forcing him into a caricature of Luddism, increasingly unable to offer much of a suggestion for what to do next. We’re facing a similar challenge, caused again by abundance, and taking it on will again mean altering our historic models of our educated life. It will be hard and complicated; abundance precipitates greater social change than scarcity.

He also asserts that if Carr wishes to sway people into truly believing that the Internet and google are really affecting our reading and therefore thinking, he must cater for every reading type and not specifically the high brow literary types. She uses his example of Tolstoy’s popular War and Peace to support her claim, “War and Peace isn’t going to carry the point.” Contrary to Carr, Shirky believes that the development and introduction of new technology has been good for humanity. He proudly states that she is a technology optimist. He contradicts Carr’s fears about the abundance of writing and information, and says that these fears always come about at the beginning of every new expansion. He argues that instead of Nietzsche, Carr needs to present a more relatable and reasonable before and after comparison. Similarly, the claim that the typewriter changed Nietzsche as a writer is a little uninformed as he claims that his works, handwritten or typed, are both of equal quality in relation to their themes and content. His big argument opposing Carr is that, ‘the ability to concentrate’ will not return as the Internet changes so much. She stakes this claim on the fact that, in previous years we were able to ‘concentrate more’ because we lived “in such a relatively empty environment, a state that she doesn’t believe we could ever recreate”.

“Technologies that make writing abundant always require new social structures to accompany them”. Shirky states that the challenge is to figure out how to “keep the distractions of the net at bay”. She humorously muses that perhaps the Internet will be humanity’s downfall, but it would be a first in three thousand years. All in all, Shirky presents a well-rounded argument that indeed does poke holes in Carr’s arguments and theories. Shirky writes in an optimistic and easy tone, contrary to Carr’s long, and rather pessimistic tone.

Brought to you by Socializeee… 


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One Comment
  1. holy crap! this looks like it’ll be hard to follow! mass amounts of info and all very thought provoking – Is google reducing the need for us to think in depth or is it giving us the ability to ‘know’ anything and everything? i think if you use google as a means to expand your knowledge then its purpose is clearly positive however if you use it only to ‘info-snack’ then maybe not so positive. Great job guys!!

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