“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

The title of this post is the title of an article by Nicholas Carr in the July/August 2008 The Atlantic that discusses how the way humans read on the internet affects the future of reading and thinking, i.e. being able to concentrate deeply and think deeply for an extended period of time.  Carr begins the article with a memorable scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey — HAL’s breakdown at the end as Dave Bowman disconnects its memory circuits.  Carr continues with a description of his own experiences with changes in his concentration and proceeds with an examination of reading on the internet, why marketers and websites want people to keep clicking, and Friedrich Nietzsche, his typewriter and how it changed his writing style, which reflected how it changed his thought process.  Machine changes human.  In short, the more time spent clicking away on the internet, reading in snippets, skimming, digesting information on the run around the Web ultimately can affect how one reads and processes offline.  That is, it’s harder to dive into the depths of text and ideas rather than skim the surface like an internet skier.  Machine changes human but for the better or no?

As I read this article, I thought of how strict I am about my own time on the internet and what I do online.  I thought of future scenarios that involved computers connected directly to the brain and carried in one’s pocket with continuous access to the internet (at no cost, of course) and the death of the book along with any kind of face-to-face social life.  The drug of our brave new world will be technology, not a pharmaceutical.  I wondered if I needed to include such scenarios in my Perceval novels since they are set in the near future.  An entire generation has never known a time when the personal computer didn’t exist, or Google, or ipods, or cell phones.  Technology has already changed the way people live their lives.

My concern here is about humans reading books — the kind one holds open in one’s hands with pages and printed text.  Will there come a day, soon (?), when people will prefer to read text on e-readers or computers?  I get a headache when I spend too much time reading a computer monitor.  And what about the energy usage of computers and other gadgets?  The heat they generate?  The reliability of energy sources?  Aren’t we supposed to be conserving energy?  The printed book is cool, elegant, portable, light and the perfect entertainment on a hot summer day (when a swimming pool isn’t available). 

Or perhaps it’s not the survival of books that is the concern, but the survival of human intelligence.  Carr writes in his article about how neural pathways and connections are formed specific to certain activities, like reading, and how that can affect those activities in adulthood.  So children who read primarily on the internet, in the hopping around and quick way of clicking, create brain structures that cannot sustain attention for deep reading and concentration.  The mind searches for other things, drifts away, finally decides to go do something else.  Won’t we need people who have the ability to sustain their attention, think deeply, concentrate for long periods of time?  I would like an audience for my stories….

On the other hand, last week as I sat in a waiting area, I heard a young boy reading aloud to his brothers from a magazine while his father watched.  The boys weren’t playing with a computer game or wearing earbuds.  They were listening to their brother read to them….


5 responses to ““Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

  1. Mmmm… it’s an interesting question. Maybe I have too much faith in humans to stay basically the same, but I find myself thinking that the delivery of ‘books’ may change, but the capacity to concentrate won’t. Come to think of it, watch someone playing an involved computer game sometime. Completely immersed, focusing, concentrating, for long periods of time. The capacity will stay with us, I think.

  2. We were @ IKEA, taking a break at the cafeteria. After the boys had eaten their demanded Swedish meatballs, they went to the center of the eating area, where there are some toys – a teeter-totter, a rocking-moose, and a couple of kid-sized tables & chairs (all of which are for sale in the store, of course). But, going past modern marketing strategy …

    The resident evil is the presence of a TV showing Nickelodeon cartoons. I abhor the stuff. Talk about crap quality, in both the visual aesthetics as well as the hypothetical content. I really think Sponge Bob Squarepants is evil. Up there with Ann Coulter, just less anti-Semitic.

    I counted for about 2 minutes. There was only 1 shot that lasted for more than 10 seconds, and most were only 2 or 3 seconds.

    Flash back 40 years …

    No, I don’t want to present the days-gone-by as some glory days of cartoons, [especially since we have Monsters, Inc.] but at least they demanded more than 15 seconds of attention span. Speed Racer, Princess Knight, hell, even Tom & Jerry or the Roadrunner, require more intelligence than the current pseudo-fare spewed forth on modern cable networks.

    Tom & Jerry do Liszt Rhapsody No. 2. This won the Academy Award for Best Cartoon, 1946. Just to verify my warm glow of yesteryear, I checked the clock on the play-back function. In the first 2 minutes of the cartoon, the average was bout 12 seconds, with two separate shots of 20 sec. “shot” being defined by me here as the period of time between ‘cuts’, where the image completely switches.

    In 7:20 minutes, the average cut was 7.5 seconds; the mean was 6. There were a stunning 4 cuts longer than 15 seconds (the longest was 21, if you exclude the last one, which was 35. Credits and opening blurbs were not counted. There were 12 cuts 10-15 seconds, 14 were 6-10 second, and 25 of them were 0-5 seconds. While this might seem like it’s contradicting my opinion of Sponge Bob, I will note that all but 3 of these very short cuts were between 5:10 and 5:55, and corresponded to the allegro section of the piece.

    See, I learned how to use Excel to new heights in grad school. What a science geek.

    So, after a verbose and meandering op-ed/statistical review, Yes, I agree, the internet and especially “modern children’s entertainment” is making us and our children incompetent. Sure, you can get to Level 692 on Doom Euro Quest Brothers, but can you appreciate reading Richard III? Watching it on stage? Or even just watching it on film? Perhaps someone will come up with a Dostoyevsky video game where the players get to wander around, morose in Imperial Russia.

    p.s. – I just watched the beginning of Richard III, hence my use as a reference. The version with Ian McKellen as Richard is stunning, primarily due to him.

  3. well, sorry it’s me again. I heard this
    today on the radio. About 35 min (or so) into it, the guest is discussing points about attention span & reading & the developing culture of reading/not-reading/on-line-reading. I only heard that part, but the link here includes a further link to the guest’s website.

  4. Elizabeth, I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts. There is an entire generation that has been conditioned to process information and sensory data in short bursts, and this interferes with any kind of concentration and deep thought which takes much longer. It’s very much like an addict who lives only for his fix, over and over. The more the sensory stimulation, the better. I fear this generation has no capacity to appreciate silence, long conversations about one subject, Mahler’s music, and movies with long tracking shots….

  5. > My concern here is about humans reading books — the kind one holds open in one’s hands with pages and printed text.

    Do e-books like the new Amazon Kindle present an acceptable middle alternative, betweenpaper books and computer screens? Their technology is closer to a screen, but the reading style closer to a book. The Kindle seems to enjoy some acceptance, despite its current high price, which will probably bring many other e-books into the market.

    > The printed book is cool, elegant, portable, light (…)

    Paper books are trashed by the millions each year, which is not so cool.

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