What is “The Google” doing to our brains? Is it just a tool to access information or is it actually making us dumber. Nicholas Carr‘s Atlantic piece from 2008:
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.
I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “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?”
Peter Suderman at The American Scene:
Reading on the web is almost certainly affecting the way we process information, but it’s not making us stupid. Instead, it’s changing the way we’re smart. Rather than storehouses of in-depth information, the web is turning our brains into indexes. These days, it’s not what you know — it’s what you know you can access, and cross reference.
In other words, books taught us to think like they do — as tools for storing extensive knowledge. Now the web teaches us to think like it does — as a tool for recall and connection. We won’t be so good at memorizing everything there is to know about a particular small-bore topic, but we’ll be a lot better at knowing what there is to be known about the broader category the topic fits into, and what other information might provide insight and context.
There is good and bad in the way that Google (to use it as shorthand for all that is new) makes us think differently – the access to information that we otherwise might not have been able to remember is certainly good, as is the freedom to spend more time on those things which are of greater importance to ourselves. But the danger is in the loss of depth of consideration: of Buber’s Du; of the delight of Oakeshott’s Poetical Mode; of Heschel’s allusive timelessness.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum:
As longtime readers know, I’m generally a scourge of cranky elders who spend a lot of time kvetching about how ill educated kids are today compared to the golden age they used to live in. Spare me. But that doesn’t mean the opposite is true either. Kids who grow up on the internet may be great at looking up odd bits of information quickly, but my experience is that they often suck at figuring out what that information means and what conclusions it’s reasonable to draw from it. That’s because they don’t know the context. They don’t know the rest of the story. And that’s because they don’t read enough books.
UPDATE #2: Matt Y. responds to Kevin Drum.
UPDATE #3: Suderman responds to Drum.
UPDATE #4: Atrios
UPDATE #5: Ezra Klein:
In that way, I wonder whether our brains aren’t becoming less like indexes and more like librarians. The situation isn’t quite as Peter presents it: The key skill isn’t knowing where to find information. It’s knowing where to find where to find information. It’s understanding connector terms and knowing the relative specialties of different search engines and finding the best aggregators and possessing ninja-level skills with Nexis. We don’t need to learn to think like Google. We need to learn how to help Google think.