There’s been a lot of commentary about Nicholas Carr’s article in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid? Carr is worried that, like HAL in 2001, he can feel his mind going. He used to read for long stretches, but:
Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. […] The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.
The article then goes on in quite a thoughtful way to explore the complex relationship between what you might call thinking tools and thinking. He’s not a thoughtless Luddite (as he has been unfairly portrayed in some places), and points out that this sort of thing is not a new concern: Socrates bemoaned the introduction of writing, and there was much criticism of the introduction of the printing press. However, he does seem to think we’re losing something valuable:
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
I really don’t agree. Sure, time to think is important – which is why I think it’s important to be offline some of the time. The Internet makes it so much easier to see other people’s associations, inferences, analogies and ideas. But it doesn’t make it so much harder to make or foster our own.
There’s another, more fundamental point here. To me it feels like new technology makes me cleverer, not stupid. Sure, if I was cut off from the Internet and computers I’d need to relearn the compensatory skills one needs to manage without ejournals, blogs and the whole wide world of useful information you can find within a minute of wanting it. But I’m not cut off, and I can think better with all that stuff than I ever could without it. For me, the technology feels like an extension to my self, so it’s easy to include it in the “me” that I’m considering when I say “makes me cleverer”. To take the systems view of Searle’s Chinese Room argument a little askew, the system that includes the pure unextended biological “me” acts as if it is cleverer, so we might as well call it cleverer.
To draw my own analogy (!) with another tech, my distance vision is rubbish without my contact lenses (or glasses). If I didn’t have them for a prolonged period of time, I’d develop ways of managing (squinting and compensatory behaviours) that would enable me to see better than I can at the moment when I whip the lenses out at the end of the day. So one could say that I would see better if I didn’t have the lenses. This would be true in a certain sense – which I think is the same sense in which it is true that “Google is making us stupid”. But it’s patently false in most broad senses.
If I want to see better, I should use the lenses. If I want to think better, I should use the Internet.