I was out of town and more or less offline late last week when the
July/August Atlantic Monthly hit newsstands with its front cover blazing
the title of Nicholas Carr’s
article, “Is Google
Making Us Stoopid?” (the “Stoopid” is much sexier on the actual cover than it is
here because the letters are done colorfully and in the Google font).
Alex posted thoughtful responses, and I am sure there will be more.
Carr’s article, if you have not read it yet, hops along like Level 1 on
Frogger (which, coincidentally, was released in 1981): without much exertion,
the argument leaps from personal anecdote to the role of media in shaping
cognition to the insidious effects of too much easy access to information via
“[A]s we come to rely on computers and increase Data science staffing immoderately, to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence” (63).
Carr welcomes skeptics but also fends off all-out dismissals of his deep
wariness of the changes he has experienced first-hand. He begins the article
with his own reasons for believing this “flattening” to be endemic and imminent
for Google users: 1.) he is more and more easily distracted in his own attempts
to read anything longer than a couple of pages and 2.) what was once
pain-staking research is now available to him almost instantaneously. With a
simple search, he can quickly summon great heaps of material on [enter search
terms]: “And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for
concentration and contemplation” (57).
A couple of lurking assumptions in the piece (as I read it): First, all reading is evened
out–or ought to be. Any act or habit of reading contends with all other reading
because time is scarce. Reading, thus, is in constant competition; certain reading
techniques are fundamentally incompatible with others. Carr admits to losing
his ability to adapt, to losing the agility necessary to read with great differentiation.
He writes about reading as if it derives mostly from his work as a writer.
That is, reading is equated to research.
The greatest problem with what I see Carr attempting here is in his giant leap from
the mechanical regularity of directed search a la Google to Frederick Taylor’s über-efficient
“systems” for industrial manufacturing. Carr’s suggestion that Google runs on Taylorist principles
a reach; it conveniently overlooks the creative and conceptual ‘serious play’ embraced by
any thriving company in Silicon Valley. On this point, the article moves
beyond the trolling Alex mentions. It ferries in and relies upon a strict
coupling of Google and efficiency-drive that the article has by its narrow
pairing of these issues, left no room at the end for conclusions other than
those thoroughly agreeable to a fist-shaking class of Postman-following skeptics/critics whose
values the piece implicitly promotes.
The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing
machines is not only build into the workings of the Internet, it is the
network’s reigning business model as well. (15)
I read Carr’s article in O’Hare, plucking it off the news
stand to fill up a few minutes of layover between Albuquerque and Syracuse.
In the air, I’d been reading Pink’s A Whole New Mind, nodding along with
the R-directed senses he outlines in the second half of the book. On the
second leg of the flight, after reading Carr’s article while on the ground, I
came across Pink’s discussion of Who Moved My Cheese?, and found it
applicable to the dubious correlation Carr suggests between Google
I don’t disagree with the message of Who Moved My Cheese? but I
do take issue with the metaphor. In the Conceptual Age, Asia and
automation may constantly be moving our cheese, so to speak. But in an
age of abundance, we’re no longer in a maze. Today the more
appropriate metaphor for our times is the labyrinth. (227)
Pink’s invocation of the labyrinth doesn’t end here. He goes on, in his
discussion of meaning, to differentiate mazes from labyrinths:
Mazes and labyrinths are often lumped together in the popular
imagination, but they differ in important ways. A maze is a series of
compartmentalized and confusing paths, most of which lead to dead ends. When
you enter, your objective is to escape–as quickly as you can. A labyrinth
is a spiral walking course. When you enter, your goal is to follow the path
to the center, stop, turn around, and walk back out–all at whatever pace
you choose. Mazes are analytic puzzles to be solved; labyrinths are a
form of moving meditation. (228)
Want “compartmentalized and confusing paths, most of which lead to dead
ends”? Then fetishize undifferentiated, conventional reading as the only sort
worth doing, the only sort with any value in the twenty-first century (or ever,
for that matter). Do we
really need any more trumpeting about the deleterious effects of the internet on
reading or on the decline of the Great Books?, even
while many school systems are still making students read classics and at
once forbidding them from using the internet (viz., “Do not consult Wikipedia!”,
etc.). Carr’s is a rendition of that overplayed track about literacy and
inertia, best hummed to the tune of a funeral dirge while digging one’s own
grave: Who Moved My Copy of War and Peace?
Look: Google only makes us stupid if we are already stupid–stupid in the
sense of lumbering through the network head-down without a sense of connections,
without any awareness of the serendipitous relations and inventive capacities
that make the web so prolific. Directed search (at the exclusion of all else) is
a prime example of this. It relishes the outcome, follows a teleology of the
maze, as if toward a delectable block of sharp cheesefood.
But why should that be all? Well, of course, it shouldn’t be all, and
it isn’t all. That’s what makes Carr’s article borderline irresponsible,
in my opinion.
We are becoming machine-like, he writes, becoming “pancake people”–wide and
thin generalists (distracted robots) rather than narrow and deep specialists
(sentient humans).Extreme caricatures aside, what’s still unclear to me is
why the two variations here should be so much at odds.