‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’

This is the question posed, and the headline of the article, by journalist Nicholas Carr in the July/August 2008 edition of The Atlantic.

(I know. I’m a little late to the party, but a colleague sent this to me yesterday after he and I have had extensive conversations about how we are teaching reading and writing as part of our English classes.)

Carr makes the point that we aren’t becoming stupid because of Google, but we are changing.

“The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. 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.'”


That’s a fascinating idea. I’ve always understood humans were adaptable, but to really consider that our brains can alter the way the function if necessary is something knew to me. This really opens up worlds of possibilities. If one were to keep his or her mind really sharp by exercising it, anything could be accomplished or learned.

Wow!

Of course, this ability to be rewired at any moment could be detrimental.

 See, Google puts any piece of information at our fingertips . . . literally. You need to know when Abraham Lincoln first took office as the president of the United States? Punch it into the search engine, and bam-o, you have your answer. It is quick and effective, but consider the other method of finding out this information — reading a book or encyclopedia.

Gasp!

That is so old-school! No one has the time to read through that much information to find this one tiny tid-bit. Right?

It seems so, and that is the point Carr was making.

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. 

“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?’ 

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. ‘I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,’ he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a ‘staccato’ quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. ‘I can’t read War and Peace  anymore,’ he admitted. ‘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.'”


So it seems plausible that the easy access to information of any sort has fundamentally changed the way we consume the written word.

This is a big deal. How am I supposed to teach literature to high school students if their brains are literally wired differently to the point where they really cannot read an entire novel?

What if I can no longer get through a novel? I have seen some evidence of this in my own life. I have struggled to get through a couple Edgar Allan Poe stories lately. I thought it was just because I was also watching a baseball game, but this makes me think maybe my problem is bigger than just being distracted. Maybe Google has rewired my brain.

That’s an interesting notion. If Google is bent on world domination, perhaps their attempts are working then. Everything is thinking they way Google wants them to. I’m not overly concerned with that, though, because quite frankly I doubt there is much I could do to stop the search giant.

Besides, my focus on what this means for readers, specifically the students in my school.

I don’t want them to grow up without learning the enjoyment of a good book, and I fully support the use of technology in the classroom. It would seem these are competing ideals, though.

I wish I had an answer.

But I don’t.

Now I just have questions. Questions I am going to ponder in a deep way in an attempt to re-wire my thinking away from the Internet mentality of quick and shallow thoughts.
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