Is Google making us stupid? -nc -mts

Melody Moberg

The Main Hall Forum Wednesday, Feb. 4 explored Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Discussions generated by Carr’s article were brought to Lawrence by three panelists, Reference Librarian Gretchen Revie, Reference and Web Services Librarian Julie Fricke, and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Julie Haurykiewicz.
Carr’s article, which ran in the July/August 2008 edition of The Atlantic, elicited numerous responses, both in reputable periodicals, such as Discover Magazine, and throughout the blogosphere. The panelists outlined Carr’s argument, explored major responses to his article and finally opened the discussion to the audience.
As the panelists situated themselves on stools in front of Main Hall 201’s whiteboards, stacks of paper in hand, Revie grinned, noting that the presentation was “technology free by choice.” Technology is not a necessity, she said but rather “a tool!”
Haurykiewicz began with a summary of Carr’s article. Basically, he argues that our ability to read and think deeply is impaired by internet use.
Online, we superficially skim through multiple texts. This habit bleeds into the way we interact with information in other aspects of our lives — flitting from Wikipedia hyperlink to Facebook to webmail impairs our focus within a Trollope novel.
Carr wrote, “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.”
Because of the internet more people are reading than ever before. However, online readers are usually “mere decoders of information,” rather than “textual interpreters.”
Carr underscores the economic agenda behind internet search engines such as Google: They gear their site toward skimming information and jumping from site to site, in an effort to expose us to more advertisements.
He argues that this change from deep reading to online reading mechanizes knowledge, making it a commodity. Reading becomes “knowledge work.” It also allegedly changes the circuitry of our minds; the internet “reprograms us.”
Obviously, Carr views this change as negative. Many responses to his article echo or elaborate upon this sentiment. However, as Fricke explained, some responses supported online reading.
Carl Zimmer wrote “How Google is Making Us Smarter” in the January edition of ***Discover***. The article’s subtitle, “Humans are natural-born cyborgs, and the Internet is our giant extended mind,” sums up his position nicely.
Another key response to Carr is Clay Shirky’s “Why Abundance is Good,” which appeared on the Britannica Forum. His title is also self-explanatory. Additionally, he argues that “Luddism is bad for society because it misdirects people’s energy and wastes their time.”
Overall, most responders found Carr’s title misleading. The panelists explained that he uses “Google” as a synonym for “internet.” “Us” suggests that Carr wrote for a sympathetic, literate audience. Finally, “stupid” means a lack of focus, and an inability to pay attention.
As the presentation broadened into an open discussion with the audience, the panelists emphasized the importance of metacognition, self-reflection, monotasking and training ourselves to stay focused.
Assistant Professor of History Monica Rico noted that Carr’s argument reflects the anxiety emerging during most surges of mass literacy. In the past, this lecture could have been “Are Novels Making Us Stupid?”
Carr’s question is appropriate. Personally, I found myself incredibly distracted while reading his article. It was peppered with hyperlinks, which, as he explains, “don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.”
Revie acknowledges that “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” does not have an easy answer. “Not absolutely yes,” she said, but “not absolutely no,” either. She does think that professors need to emphasize metacognition to counteract the worst effects of online reading.
Deep reading and reflection are liberal arts ideals, and Haurykiewicz is positive about what she sees at Lawrence. In the CTL, she witnesses “students embracing knowledge for its own sake,” which is surely a “sign of hope.