Monday, June 16, 2008

Moving Meditation

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). Jeff and 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 Google: drumroll...

"[A]s we come to rely on computers 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 ├╝ber-efficient "systems" for industrial manufacturing. Carr's suggestion that Google runs on Taylorist principles alone is 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.

Car writes:

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 and Taylorism.

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.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at June 16, 2008 9:20 PM to Technologies

Thanks for your take on this...I particularly like the phrase "delectable block of sharp cheesefood." Because all discussions of new media and digital theory should include dairy products.

One thing that strikes me (and I haven't read the original piece yet...and may not...hmmmm...) is the use of machine as analogy for cognition--seems like we hear that one a lot. What is lost with this analogy? What of the messy mystical biochemistry (cheese fondue, mayhaps) of the brain/consciousness/mind/whatever is lost in this analogy? And considering how poorly I understand how computers work, how useful is that analogy anyhow?

I am, as aerobil would say, just sayin'.

Posted by: susansinclair at June 20, 2008 5:52 PM