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March 3, 2011 6:02 PM   Subscribe

Previously we worried Is Google Making Us Stupid?. Author Nicholas Carr has expanded that concern into a book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. An interesting review, more of a discussion piece, from the London Review Of Books. (via)
posted by tumid dahlia (55 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
I had to do a quick google on how to add comments here...
posted by greenhornet at 6:16 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


tl;dr
posted by Joe Beese at 6:19 PM on March 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


tl;bi
posted by de at 6:22 PM on March 3, 2011


wikipedia
posted by fuq at 6:27 PM on March 3, 2011


I don't understand the 'controversy.' The landscape has changed, so we adapt.

It's like bemoaning the fact that nobody can recite the Odyssey any more. Well, no. Nobody needs to. We're freed up to concentrate on other things.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:30 PM on March 3, 2011 [9 favorites]


i'm still browsing, but isn't Carr arguing (in part) that concentration has been compromised?
posted by de at 6:35 PM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thag say, me no use Fire. No use Grog's wheel-demon, or arrow from river-people. Me happy dragging mammoth meat home to lady-Thag and eating cold in dark. Cave no have hunting-panting on wall and Thag no have sandal-hoofs but me no shiver much. How do young cave people keep up with rock technology! Thag no understand. Me do have sharpened rock, but me no use much. Thag avoids trappings of rock lifestyle and still Thag get nothing done!
posted by 2bucksplus at 6:40 PM on March 3, 2011 [11 favorites]


Carr seems to be focusing on a pretty narrow "us" here -- literate people who do/did read books. Yes, I suppose the Nyets have changed the neural blah-de-blah of that "us," but considering that the vast majority of human beings have not been literate, and that the vast majority of functionally literate humans didn't/don't read books . . . . well, why not look into what exposure to the info superthunderdome is doing to people rather than to a particular miniscule slice of people?

I actually find myself doing the reverse of what Carr describes: I approach the Net and other media like I do books. I mean, I regularly sit here and read marathon MeFi threads for an hour or two straight. I watch whole seasons of a TV show in one or two sittings.

Frankly, I'd give up a lot of concentration and attention span in exchange for being able to find out in 20 seconds the name of that familiar-looking character actor and the title of the movie (s)he was in that I can't quite remember. Oh, the sleepless nights I've avoided.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:44 PM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Me am play gods!
posted by Nomyte at 6:44 PM on March 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


Other things that make us stupid:
Telephones, Good software, Cellphones, Texting, TED, Amazon.com, Social media, GPS, PowerPoint, The iPad, Apple, Car automation, Meetings, Fatty foods, Multitasking, Boring jobs, Sex, Living in a city, Email, Computer screens
posted by Pyry at 6:45 PM on March 3, 2011 [28 favorites]


Other things that make us stupid:

You just googled that, didn't you?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:46 PM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Don't forget small dogs. Every time you acquire a little dog, you lose 10 IQ points. It's a scientific fact.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:46 PM on March 3, 2011


Meh. The same sorts of luddites argued in the 90's that calculators in the classroom would render us unable to do basic arithmetic. Now, three decades later, they're targeting Google.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:47 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are luddites making us too a'scared of the cancer? We man-up to put on rocketpacks and buzz the grave of Marry Shelly to find out...
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:48 PM on March 3, 2011


Oh geez: [Carr] gives us a brisk history of reading from the invention of the codex through to the Gutenberg revolution, and describes how its evolution gave rise to an ‘intellectual ethic’ – a set of normative assumptions about how the human mind works.

Mr. Carr, meet Mr. Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:50 PM on March 3, 2011 [11 favorites]


By the way, it is customary for reviewers of books like this to note, in a jocular aside, that they interrupted their writing labours many times to update their Facebook page, to fire off text messages, to check their email, to tweet and blog and amuse themselves on the internet trying to find images of cats that look like Hitler. Well, I’m not on Facebook and I don’t know how to tweet. I have an email account with AOL (‘America’s Oldest Luddites’), but there’s rarely anything in my inbox. I’ve never had an iPod or a BlackBerry. I’ve never had a mobile phone of any kind. Like Woody Allen, I’ve avoided the snares of the digital age. And I still can’t get anything done.

Never had a mobile phone? AOL address? Is this London Review individual older than Mr. Burns?
posted by Phyltre at 6:56 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's more the relentless pressure to multi task that I blame for the impaired ability to concentrate on long texts. Because we are so connected today the expectations responses to emails, texts, and phone calls have become absurdly short. No one plans, no one listens, no one researches in depth. You can always google it or clear up a misunderstanding with a quick text.
posted by Tashtego at 7:03 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, no, no. Google isn't making me stupid. Google is making everyone else stupid - too stupid to see how right I am!

am I doing this right?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:06 PM on March 3, 2011


nothing makes us stupid, we're stupid just waiting to happen.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 7:07 PM on March 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


Yes, clearly easy access and discovery of information is making us less well-informed.
posted by Vaska at 7:15 PM on March 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Anybody want to summarize the summary of his book for me? I don't really have the time or the inclination to read it, but I'd like to sound smart at the water cooler tomorrow.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:17 PM on March 3, 2011


Meh. The same sorts of luddites argued in the 90's that calculators in the classroom would render us unable to do basic arithmetic. Now, three decades later, they're targeting Google.

I think if Carr were here, he'd argue that what you're saying is generally correct; except this time these critics (or 'luddites') come armed with reams of neurological evidence demonstrating some of the significant drawbacks to web communication. He even points out that Socrates thought the introduction of the written word marked the end of intellect as we knew it, and he was right. We just all agree that the benefits of literacy far outweigh any tradeoffs that come from shifting away from an oral culture.

His argument is much more reasonable than some of these quick dismissals would suggest. Besides, the idea that technological change also changes to the communicators is not exactly a new one.

He doesn't suggest that moving away from the web or google is desirable or even possible, but that we seem to sacrifice some things (better memories, more sustained focus and better reading comprehension) for others (the immediacy and endless wealth of information) as we shift to web-based methods of communication. Whether that exchange is worth it is another question, but he would argue that the sacrifice is inevitable.
posted by Adam_S at 7:18 PM on March 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's more the relentless pressure to multi task that I blame for the impaired ability to concentrate on long texts.

One could develop an argument here, expanding from John Taylor Gatto, that we are infected with the multitasking bug by our Germanic schooling systems. Pretend you have an aptitude and a passion for art. You're in your art class, charcoaling away, and the bell rings. Next class. Maths, whatever. But Mr Teacher, I'm really getting into the swing of this charcoal thing, I'm doing some good work and learning a lot about my abilities as an artist, and furthermore, I'm really enjoying it. Too bad, little Freddy. It's long division time.

So to cope with schooling you quickly need to develop a pretty frictionless on/off switch. ART - ON! *BELL* ART - OFF! MATHS - ON! It's fucked-up and in my opinion more directly responsible for short attention spans than any amount of television or computer games or internetting. No point having passion for something because your energies are now required elsewhere. And this is what we're telling young, easily-influenced, malleable brains.
posted by tumid dahlia at 7:31 PM on March 3, 2011 [31 favorites]


Thanks Adam_S, I skimmed what you wrote and I think I got enough of it to sound smart. Just in case though, do you think you could rewrite that in less than 160 characters so I can tweet it?
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:32 PM on March 3, 2011


Yes, yes, you have no attention span, we get it.
posted by Phire at 7:37 PM on March 3, 2011


I recently came across a book review in the New Yorker of the variety of books covering the impact of the internet on our minds. It's worth checking out.
posted by mikepaco at 7:39 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Newsflash:

NOTHING STAYS THE SAME.

So, we adapt and go on. Call your next case, your honor.....
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:42 PM on March 3, 2011


I would have a lot more patience for Carr's argument, if he wasn't so eager to use a dumb soundbite title for his book, consolidated with the many shallow and vapid op-eds he published in trying to promote it, and backed up by his decades long history of somewhat reactionary anti-populism in regards to technology.

The baldly calculated marketing (New Popular Thing is Bad! Kids and Young People Don't Respect Blah Blah! Buy My Book To Feel Superior, And Learn The Secret!) blurs the line - for me - between whether it's being used to merely promote his book/thesis, or whether in fact his thesis has been developed because of the marketing opportunities.

I find myself - fairly or not - leaning towards the latter view (a trendy counter-intuitive bandwagon for some easy money/notoriety [but secretly actually intuitive] ), based on his track record and utter lack of formal qualifications and peer-reviewed publications on any of the topics he writes about, along with the fact that the only thing his works have in common is a deep skepticism of technology and technological thinking.
posted by smoke at 7:42 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also I fucking love the internet - and it's made me so goddamn smart that his mind would be blown to the extent of a hard a pink mist spraying out his arsehole.
posted by smoke at 7:44 PM on March 3, 2011


his mind would be blown to the extent of a hard a pink mist spraying out his arsehole.

Keyboards have made me stupid.
posted by smoke at 7:45 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The same sorts of luddites argued in the 90's that calculators in the classroom would render us unable to do basic arithmetic.

But they were right!
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:01 PM on March 3, 2011


I don't understand why, but I greatly appreciate how MF has become so much less crotchety & Ludditey than it used to be. It was getting to the point where I was going bail from here while sticking with BoingBoing (which of course is still awesome).
Did some of us simply fade away over the last year or what?
posted by davel at 8:26 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just a blatant self-link here, but I wrote a sort of companion piece to this line of thought and it produced an interesting discussion. My concern is not that we just know less, but that we're losing the ability to tell what is trivial and what is real knowledge.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:44 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's a good New Yorker essay that reviews several examples of this kind of book. My favorite part:
when people struggle to describe the state that the Internet puts them in they arrive at a remarkably familiar picture of disassociation and fragmentation. Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part, shimmering around us, unstable and impossible to fix. The world becomes Keats’s “waking dream,” as the writer Kevin Kelly puts it.

The odd thing is that this complaint . . . is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart.

We must, at some level, need this to be true, since we think it’s true about so many different kinds of things. We experience this sense of fracture so deeply that we ascribe it to machines that, viewed with retrospective detachment, don’t seem remotely capable of producing it. If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail; and, if you think the world is broken, every machine looks like the hammer that broke it.
posted by John Cohen at 8:49 PM on March 3, 2011 [20 favorites]


I think "Get Off My Lawn Amirite?" is the new "Get Off My Lawn". Reflexive dismissiveness is no more enlightened than reflexive alarmism. It's just another ruse, a way of looking thoughtful without having to think. But the day won't come when we can stop bothering to consider how the things we surround ourselves with affect us.

I've been on the internet almost every day of my life since I was eight - except for the five months last year when I couldn't get it where I lived. In those five months I learnt, almost for the first time, what it was like to have a burning curiosity, and let it burn. To rely on my own mind. To pay attention. To know what I was looking for, and delight in finding it. I became a better, smarter person. When I got the internet back, all that went away again. I wouldn't ever trade the wonders of the internet for what I lost, and I don't even think Nicholas Carr would expect me to, but I'm perfectly happy to acknowledge that something happened to me then, and that it mattered.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 9:24 PM on March 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


related, sort of...
posted by mrducts at 9:54 PM on March 3, 2011


The odd thing is that this complaint . . . is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855

This is a terribly stupid, almost inverted, reading of Baudelaire.
posted by Wolof at 11:41 PM on March 3, 2011


What did Baudelaire say, Wolof?
posted by tumid dahlia at 12:08 AM on March 4, 2011


He was exhilarated by modernity and all that went with it.
posted by Wolof at 1:36 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Surely he means "The Google" ?
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 3:20 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think I'm cleverer after introducing the Internet to my daily reading habits but that could have happened anyway.
posted by h00py at 4:30 AM on March 4, 2011


It's essentially a value judgment: which is more important, knowing things, or knowing how to find things? I can memorize facts about movies, or I can know how to quickly navigate IMDB. There's probably an art to being able to perfectly describe why I was uncomfortable with the movie Garden State, but linking my friend to the TVTropes page for "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" will do just fine. Memorize over 11,000 Magic cards? No thank you, I'd rather use Gatherer.

For better or worse, we're all becoming more like librarians and less like bards. Who protests? Those who lean hardest on the bardic skills, who get through life with a smile and a good story, and never bothered to cultivate research skills or to embrace new technology. The "librarians"? They're the 80-year-olds first-in-line for an iPad, because they're excited to see what the future brings.

Neither approach is fully right or wrong. Technology's great, but so is stopping to smell the roses.
posted by explosion at 4:55 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess on the contrary, "Let me google that for you" helps make the stupid smarter?

Another relevant question, do trees make people shorter?
posted by samsara at 5:14 AM on March 4, 2011


You know Plato worried about writing making us stupid. No, really.
posted by MarshallPoe at 6:16 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


But being a bar just sounds cooler than being a librarian, and I love libraries!
posted by adamdschneider at 7:56 AM on March 4, 2011


A bard. Although being a bar might be kind of cool, if people could keep themselves from throwing up in you all the time.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:56 AM on March 4, 2011


You know Plato worried about writing making us stupid. No, really.

Isn't his allegory of the cave pretty similar to what my excerpt from the New Yorker is describing?
posted by John Cohen at 8:11 AM on March 4, 2011


Metafilter: "Get Off My Lawn Amirite?" is the new "Get Off My Lawn."
posted by John Cohen at 9:42 AM on March 4, 2011


I think the final point of the article is the most interesting: That by relying on computers and the internet to store our facts, we diminish our ability to link disparate data points and thus lose creativity.

To me, that's reminiscent of a cultural/mainstream ideal* of intelligence: The quantifiable gathering of objective facts, which treats intelligence and education as a product. This would posit that a Jeopardy! champion is the smartest man in America.

Memory is an impressive and necessary component of intelligence, but it's meaningless without any way of connecting seemingly-unrelated facts, and it's much harder to test for abstract thinking.

* = Calling out a cultural "ideal" is tricky, hence the disclaimer. It appears though that we seek objectively measurable standards of intelligence, hence GPA, SAT scores, etc. Those are to some degree necessary for a large national education system, but it misses the nuance of being able to, say, creatively solve a problem. Because we can't write down a number that measures creativity, it's seen as less important. Or so I believe.
posted by Turkey Glue at 10:03 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


That by relying on computers and the internet to store our facts, we diminish our ability to link disparate data points and thus lose creativity.

On the contrary, the internet makes it easier (and flat-out more fun) than ever to link disparate facts.

Think about citations in a book vs. links on the web. They can serve the same basic function: to draw the reader's attention to a supporting source.

But let's be honest: how often do you see a citation in a book and then actually track down the source to read it? I almost never do this (now that I'm not a student anymore). I'm a voracious book reader who eagerly underlines sources in the endnotes of a book to remind myself to check out the source later ... but I almost never follow through on these plans. That's all they are: distant plans. Not immediate activity.

In contrast, a link actively takes you directly to the source. You immediately read it to see whether it really supports what the author of that first piece was saying. Maybe you see that the source is more ambiguous than the author's characterization of it. Oh no -- people get stuff wrong on the internet. They get stuff wrong in books too. But on the internet, Google is right there, so you are likely to immediately try to track down a more definitive answer (which might be "yeah, the author was right, but now I can see more clearly why the author was right," or it might be "hey, the author really missed something").

Also, pre-internet, if I found 2 facts that went together in interesting ways, what would come of it? I might express the connection to a friend who happened to be nearby, or I might use it in a paper for school, or I might write it down in marginalia. That was nice, but it seems very confined by today's standards. Now, if I find an interesting connection, I make a blog post out of it, which is likely to be read by hundreds or thousands of people. People I've never met will drop by and leave a comment that points out a third thing that I can connect to those other two things...
posted by John Cohen at 10:26 AM on March 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Agree that instant intertextuality broadens our reach, and that webbiness in general makes us quicker and cleverer. But I agree with BlackLeotardFront that there's a privileged (and relatively recent) kind of subjectivity that suffers from the increasing lack of (cognitive, emotional, social) space for deep reflection. Google/Twitter-begotten ADHD is only part of it; blame also the changing structure of the typical work-week, and that fewer of us can now enjoy discrete periods of leisure time.
posted by nelljie at 9:44 PM on March 4, 2011


there's a privileged (and relatively recent) kind of subjectivity that suffers from the increasing lack of (cognitive, emotional, social) space for deep reflection.

Serious question: does everything discussed on Metafilter have to be about "privilege"? A sentence like the above wouldn't seem to mean anything different if you deleted that word; it often seems superfluous to the analysis. This is one of the oddest verbal tics I've ever heard. Have colleges started teaching that everything is about "privilege"?
posted by John Cohen at 4:35 AM on March 5, 2011


Hi John - I'm sure I did, in fact, absorb usage of the term through college. Will concede too to being a bit of a clunky writer generally. But, however corny or boring it might be, I (and others, no doubt) believe - with some justification, I think - that access to cultural capital is a self-perpetuating crapshoot. 'Privileged' is meant to be a shorthand for that.

The loss bemoaned by Nicholas Carr is inflected by class, like everything is. It's that of a special kind of historically-engendered consciousness, one that's not, and hasn't been, typically enjoyed by loads of people who didn't grow up in book-loving households. (If you like, would be happy to cite sources another time, but just at the minute, I've got a dog to walk.)
posted by nelljie at 3:03 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


(but, quickly, more shorthand: neuroplasticity + culture [incl. economic advantage/disadvantage] = empirically observed, shaded differences in cognitive repertoire and tools)
posted by nelljie at 3:08 PM on March 5, 2011


Um. Anecdata: IMDB (a favorite site) has not made me dumber at all. Opposite, in fact. Before, I had no interest and a strong aversion for facts about films and shows. Even actors names were of limited interest. And forget about directors! Then came IMDB.

Now it is trivial to look up an actor, and their resume. w00t! Or even more fascinating, now that it's available so readily, a director and their resume. And since it's there anyway, I've discovered that short biographies of showbiz folks can be interesting. This is stuff I essentially ignored in the past.

It is equally true about other things: Ease of looking up information makes it more likely to look it up. And I have the luxury of being able to follow any attractive digression as far as I please. I occasionally spend huge chunks of time following links in Wikipedia or IMDB.

Another area where this has seriously expanded my interest is with recording artists. The ease to look stuff up to read makes it happen where before, I wouldn't bother. Classic Rock internet radio plus Wikipedia = lost afternoons! And I love it, for certain. It's silly, but I only just learned in the past couple months, "Smoke on the Water" is about an actual event. (started out with "WTF are the actual words to the song", since I never could quite make them out).

Of course, it is also very true, and I'll allow, a little sad, that I rarely read books now. Once upon a time, life was not right for me unless I had a book to read, and often a magazine or two. Books don't hold my attention the way they did in the past. But then, it was mostly novels and I was escaping. Now I'm far more likely to read non-fiction, if it's a book. But the real thing is, I avoid reading because I want my eyes to rest when I'm not at the computer!
posted by Goofyy at 10:57 PM on March 5, 2011


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