(Note: A revised version of this article has been posted on Techdirt.)
Matt Asay writes about Nick Carr’s article in the July issue of The Atlantic, “Is Google making us stupid?” I’m not so sure that you can make such a generalization, but the Internet certainly seems to be making Nick Carr and Matt Asay stupid.
There are some valid concerns nested in there, but the tone is attention seeking and hyperbolic. More importantly, Carr seems (note: haven’t been able to read the full article) to be jumping to the wrong conclusions, as appears to be typical. What really irks me is how people make the wrong distinctions with respect to digital technology. People tend to liken it to analog technologies when it’s dissimilar (e.g. people who believe DRM is possible), and treat it like something entirely different when it is similar (e.g. now).
How is Google’s or Wikipedia’s role of “brain extension” all that different from something like paper? Sure, it’s much more powerful and works on a completely different scale, but if the fear is that we aren’t exercising our brains enough because we rely on Google, how does the same concern not apply to paper? Paper plays a role of brain extension, whether it’s through notes we write for ourselves or books we reference from a library.
According to the Radar Online, Carr writes in the article:
[S]cholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior 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 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.
I’m sorry, but how is this “chilling” (as the Radar comments)? I don’t understand why this is a problem. I skim a ton of stuff online and often make quick judgments as to whether or not its worth my time. There’s a lot of crap in the long tail. But there are also a lot of worthwhile things. Skimming is human filtering, it’s a necessary and useful part of processing the vast amount of information available online. I’m not going to read everything I find on the web. Most articles I will scan quickly, but there are many other things that I read in detail and at length.
What’s wrong with skimming?
And then there’s Matt’s attack on Twitter…
Speaking of Twitter, am I the only one who views it as further evidence of a soundbite culture that struggles even to think beyond 140-character blips?
Come on! It’s a medium! What about the famous quote? “I’ve written you a long letter because I haven’t had time to write a short one.” (paraphrased – usually attribute to Mark Twain, but it appears it may be Blaise Pascal). It’s harder to be concise. Regardless, Twitter is a medium, it’s micro-blogging. Just because you make use of a different medium doesn’t mean that it controls your thinking or prevents you from using other mediums. Did telegrams make people stupid? I use the Internet to update my Facebook status and to write 2500 word emails to stay in touch with close friends.
Twitter doesn’t make people stupid.
Nor does Google or Wikipedia or anything else. People are just stupid irrespective of technology. Myself included. I don’t do stupid things because of technology, I do stupid things because sometimes I do stupid things. We may see stupidity manifested in different ways on different mediums, but I have a hard time believing that the medium is to blame.
I’ll be watching for the article in its entirety when it comes online…
Update: The article is online. I was expecting a little more evidence, less storytelling and speculation. To Carr’s credit, he does acknowledge the counterexample of paper. Though, he doesn’t explain why skimming is problematic, aside from worrying that we’re becoming “mere decoders of information,” like computers. Did paper cause people to become mere transmitters of information? We aren’t deprived of our ability to reflect or think deeply by using Google’s search engine or by skimming through blog posts.