01 August 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

For me, as for others, 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. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the 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. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Nick Carr's Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," has -- of course -- created a little buzz online, Without rehashing the conversation that's ensued between Carr and Clay Shirky (with some input from Larry Sanger, David Hillis, David Brin, et al.), suffice to say it's the "we're losing the ability to read and think deeply!" crowd vs. "the internet is the most super-awesomest thing ever that's going to turn us into efficient info-consuming robots!" battle redux.

I have to say, this stuff doesn't interest me much. Except for a nod at historical perspective from Carr himself, none of the respondents take the past seriously, without which it's just a bunch of overly-articulate men (yes, all men, which I've pretty much come to expect from The Edge debates) repeating the same arguments that have been made about new or pervasive technologies from time immemorial. If they had done a little background research on the history of reading, they'd find some gems. Like this one from Pierre Daniel Huet, a late seventeenth-century French scholar who bemoaned the proliferation of dictionaries, compendia and other short-cuts to "true learning":
So many summaries, so many new methods, so many indexes, so many dictionaries have slowed the live ardor which made men learned ... All the sciences today are reduced to dictionaries and no one seeks other keys to enter them. (From Huetiana ou pensees diverses de M. Huet, 1723, trans. Ann Blair)
Huet was right, at least in one sense: compendia were reducing knowledge to bite-sized chunks, to Bartlett's quotable quotes. But, like the Larry Sangers of all ages, he was fighting a losing battle. As the amount and kind of information available changes, so will reading habits, for better or worse. Others, the Clay Shirkys of the 17C, recognized this inevitable truism, and even praised reference works as opening up vast new realms of knowledge -- as "democratizing" knowledge, spreading more texts to more people faster. As Gabriel Naudé, another seventeenth-century French scholar, writes:
I esteem these Collections extreamly profitable and necessary, considering the brevity of our life, and the multitude of things which we are now obliged to know, e're one can be reckoned amongst the number of learned men, do not permit us to do all of ourselves. (From Constructions concerning erecting of a library, 1661, tr. John Evelyn)
Both of the above passages are quoted from Ann Blair's "Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overlaod ca. 1550-1700" (JHI 64.1). If you want to get a handle on whether Google is making us all stoopid, I recommend starting there.

Or you could just Google "history of reading."


Anonymous said...

Superb article. The historical superficiality of contemporary debates about neoteric technologies (e.g., the internet, "the google," etc.) is unfortunate. It gives one an entirely different, and richer, perspective on the issues when one recognizes that they're recapitulating themes (reflexive neophobia) that have framed debates about technology in the past. Of course, this is not to say that arguments against new technologies are automatically dismissable, but rather that one ought to look extra closely at their validity.

Whitney said...

well said, a. nony mouse.