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Is Google Making Us Stupid?
June 10, 2008 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Is Google Making Us Stupid? "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."

An interesting editorial regarding how the Internet's style of information delivery has shortened the attention spans of GeneratLET'S RIDE BIKES!
posted by WCityMike (85 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Heh. "I'm getting old! It must be the internet's fault!"
posted by tkolar at 9:41 AM on June 10, 2008 [20 favorites]


tl;dr
posted by LordSludge at 9:42 AM on June 10, 2008 [21 favorites]


the first two paragraphs looked interesting...but I got the fidgets at that point and went on to another link...
posted by HuronBob at 9:46 AM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm so glad that Google invented web search.
posted by shmegegge at 9:48 AM on June 10, 2008


Ha! I was going to post this, but I was going to use LordSludge's comment for the title.
posted by Caduceus at 9:51 AM on June 10, 2008


I'm not sure this is true. I'm a writer and use the internet all the time; it has made my research much faster and, arguably lazier. But I also read books from cover to cover and magazine and newspaper articles from start to finish. I struggle a bit reading long articles on screen from start to finish. But that's only because screens aren't as nice as paper to read, particularly long pieces. I also struggle a bit reading New Yorker articles from start to finish. But that's because they're too long, period.
posted by rhymer at 9:51 AM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


I wasn't sure I bought into the concept of an "attention span" back when TV was the villain-of-the-week, and I'm not sure I buy it now.

When I see someone obsessing for hours over something that isn't very interesting, I don't admire their great attention span. I just think they're stupid. Smart people process something and then move on.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:58 AM on June 10, 2008 [6 favorites]


I remember reading an essay by someone who was arguing that our increased interaction with binary systems of logic (i.e. older search engines didn't use fuzzy logic to return relevant results) was making us less spontaneous, creative, etc etc... I'm not sure how true this is, but I honestly don't believe this, nor do I believe that the internet is making the masses illiterate or stupid. I think we need to blame the users not the tools.
posted by tybeet at 9:59 AM on June 10, 2008


Is Google Making Us Stupid?

I think that poor information literacy is the true crisis at hand. Feeling stupider from much greater access to information seems to me to just be a symptom of it.

Short answer: You are asking the wrong question.
posted by Tehanu at 10:04 AM on June 10, 2008 [13 favorites]


We are, constantly and unconsciously, trying to prioritize and take action on what is most 'important' to us at a given time. With Google and the ease of information it symbolizes, the competition for our timeslices is fierce. There is no longer a significant cost of a context switch.

Other incarnations of this pattern have played themselves out in recent history - the remote control gave us channel surfing and its flavor of ADD-like behavior. Surely before the automobile, taking a trip was a thought-out endeavor and one did not casually
posted by Bokononist at 10:06 AM on June 10, 2008


Don't blame the tool; blame the user.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:08 AM on June 10, 2008


The pocket calculator made us less good at mental arithmetic.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:09 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Okay, one-liners aside...

I completely buy the premise, but as the author implies towards the end, it's a net win, much like the invention of the written alphabet and the printing press. Google makes us stupid in the same way that calculators make us bad at math. Get really good at using a calculator, and your long division may indeed suffer, because you no longer have to spend time doing it, but holy crap now you can do really complex operations in seconds. Scale it up to running finite element analysis on a high-end PC, for example, and you make possible feats of engineering that were very tedious and pretty much unfeasible without that external tool. Just don't take that calculator away, cuz by now your basic maths have atrophied.

So our internet-A.D.D.led brains may well be worse at focusing on one subject, at diving deep into understanding that one thing very very well, but it's much better at accepting and parsing a bazillion streams of information that modern society, including the internet, throws at us. Instant availability of information is a Good Thing, by and large -- and the great thing is..: once I find it, I don't even have to remember it! I can always look it up!

I'm much smarter than I ever was -- just don't take away my Google.
posted by LordSludge at 10:10 AM on June 10, 2008 [7 favorites]


whatever.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:11 AM on June 10, 2008


"trying to prioritize and take action on what is most 'important' to us at a given time. With Google and the ease of information it symbolizes, the competition for our timeslices is fierce."

I think you make a good point, which goes back to the author's story about Nietzsche and the typewriter. The computer allows us vastly stronger utilities with which to multi-task. Not only is this device we type on a "word processor" but it's an entertainment machine, a communications device, perhaps even a financial advisor and a personal organizer/calendar. We move back and forth between these mediums as it suits our pleasure, but you also have to realize that the human mind is itself vastly capable of multi-tasking, so these short time-slices don't necessarily mean that information isn't being processed in the same quality.
posted by tybeet at 10:12 AM on June 10, 2008


Oh and also...
See: the Singularity.
posted by tybeet at 10:13 AM on June 10, 2008


Can someone dumb this down for me pls? TIA!
posted by joelf at 10:20 AM on June 10, 2008


This is kind of like arguing that poets are stupider than novelists because their works are generally shorter.
posted by desjardins at 10:22 AM on June 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


"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."

I would rather have the big picture and know that I could dive in if I wanted to than be forced to dive in at a certain place and risk not getting what I am looking for.

Go Go Gadget Google.
posted by Return Zero at 10:26 AM on June 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


Google/wikipedia is giving us significant non-local storage with some latency issues that are nethertheless decreasing.
posted by Artw at 10:26 AM on June 10, 2008


Don't know. I'll look it up on Google.
posted by popcassady at 10:28 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


No.

For one thing, better access to information lets people make better choices, should they choose to avail themselves to it. So in that sense, they're smarter.

As for diving vs. jetskiing, well that is a difference in cognitive style, and it's entirely a matter of preference as to which is 'better'. It's impossible to say that one is 'stupider' then the other, as desjardins it would be like saying poets are stupider then novelists.

And finally, as the author is probably aging, mental capacity will be going down no matter what. The fact that google exists now is not why he feels dumber.
posted by delmoi at 10:32 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree that the access to more information is better; so too is the lowered costs of retreiving such information. However, there are some arguments and information that are best presented in the long form (being an academic, I encounter a lot of it). What I want to know is how to reprogram my reading style BACK to the long form from the state it's in right now. Or, even better, how to switch back and forth at will. Unfortunately, my attention span is utter shit these days. It distresses me.
posted by proj at 10:36 AM on June 10, 2008


I'll agree with the premise as well in that I used to spend much of my free time in the library and now books often seem like homework. There are a couple of tradeoffs not yet mentioned in that considering we had a few generations of people who didn't read anything at all, the net is forcing some level of reading comprehension on just about everyone. The other thing I've noticed is that I write vastly more than I ever did pre-net and I really haven't yet decided what this is doing to my brain. Judging by youtube commentary there are a number of people for whom writing is a wild new experience as well.
posted by well_balanced at 10:38 AM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


I would rather have the big picture and know that I could dive in if I wanted to than be forced to dive in at a certain place and risk not getting what I am looking for.

Exactly. Most or all of the information was available before -- it was just a ginormous pain in the ass to get to before the internet came along, often involving a trip to the library or possibly even another country to get the information required. A $1000 set of encyclopedias, once considered an incredible reference on a wide range of topics, can only provide a fraction of the knowledge that Wikipedia provides.

Since achieving a wide breadth of knowledge was so difficult, people tended more towards depth of knowledge. You can still go deep if you want to, but man that breadth is so very, very appealing and so instantly rewarding. Hey, I wonder what's going on over at Engadget...?

Aw, shit -- it's iPhone week. Nevermind.
posted by LordSludge at 10:40 AM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


proj: If you want to get better at written math, stop using your calculator.

Personally, I don't think it's worth it.
posted by LordSludge at 10:42 AM on June 10, 2008


Heh. Yes. I keep on popping over there and then realising that.
posted by Artw at 10:42 AM on June 10, 2008


Since achieving a wide breadth of knowledge was so difficult, people tended more towards depth of knowledge. You can still go deep if you want to, but man that breadth is so very, very appealing and so instantly rewarding. Hey, I wonder what's going on over at Engadget...?

I think the whole breadth vs. depth thing is really person-specific anyway. There are just as many resources that cater to depth as there are ones that cater to breadth.

Even still, I find this article in line with the whole "people have the internets, so they don't read books" argument which I find flawed. If anything the internet provides more resources to find relevant books to a person. I know I've been reading more than ever, just because through sites like MeFi I've been finding non-fiction recommendations that sound wholly appealing.

If you have problems concentrating because you have internetitis then that's a serious problem that you should work on rectifying. Step one: Turn off your computer.
posted by tybeet at 10:47 AM on June 10, 2008


When I see someone obsessing for hours over something that isn't very interesting, I don't admire their great attention span. I just think they're stupid. Smart people process something and then move on.

That's absolutely not true. Breakthrough ideas like General Relativity almost always take long, sustained and focused efforts of concentration and attention to develop. And until such complex ideas are fully realized, they often don't look very interesting to the kinds of 'smart people' you describe (hint: just because someone's smug doesn't mean they're smart).

In a world where people just let their mind's focus flit from one passing object of attention to another, without examining the object from a multiplicity of angles and with a full appreciation for its context, nothing new of any importance could ever be created, because no one would ever develop the depth of understanding needed to make meaningful contributions to a field of study or discipline.

I don't blame the internet for the problem of our increasingly underdeveloped attention spans, as I think the internet is really just one more embodiment (like TV) of a whole host of more basic cultural assumptions and attitudes that are really at the root of the problem. Although the Internet may work to an extent as just another self-reinforcement mechanism for the culture in its current form. Only a culture that would unflinchingly invest millions--possibly billions--of dollars propagating marketing slogans like "Have it your way, right away" could produce television programming that looks like ours does and an internet that looks like this.

The influence of the Internet is not to blame for the state of the Internet, and there are an infinite number of other approaches--approaches that encourage contemplation and analytical reflection--that we could have chosen to take with the way we present content on the web. But this is the Internet we really wanted.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:49 AM on June 10, 2008 [7 favorites]


tl;dr

Can someone dumb this down for me pls?


Here, I'll boil it down to two quotes for you guys:

Anecdotes alone don’t prove much.

So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism.


It's just the usual thumbsucking bullshit, where "we" is supposed to be read as "all of humanity" but in fact means "me and these three guys who agree with me."

Also, I use Google and the internet constantly, and yet I'm reading Middlemarch (900 pages)! Incredible!
posted by languagehat at 10:54 AM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


rhymer, I concur–New Yorker articles have been overly long and tedious since long before I invented the internet.

-Al
posted by Mister_A at 10:58 AM on June 10, 2008


tl;dr

If I had to look this up on Google to see what it meant, and felt dumber, not smarter, as a result, does that mean that maybe the article is right?

I read it in the magazine the other day, and ended up mostly lumping it with all the other "technology makes you stupid" articles I've read in my life. I'm sure people said the same thing when slide rules became commercially available, or when libraries began to use card catalogs.

I don't blame the internet for the problem of our increasingly underdeveloped attention spans, as I think the internet is really just one more embodiment (like TV) of a whole host of more basic cultural assumptions and attitudes that are really at the root of the problem.

This makes sense to me. Google doesn't make you dumb, any more than playing a video game will make you violent. Both are culturally-rooted and culturally-bounded phenomena, though, that have both positive and negative impacts.
posted by Forktine at 10:59 AM on June 10, 2008


I had a moment of dismay when I read the article, but then I was reminded that "viewing-with-alarm" is a favorite occupation for all humanity and besides, it doesn't affect me. As I have all my life, I'm working my way through about 20 books, some of them on my Kindle, some not, two of them seriously, and I am ever-so-pleased that my Treo has Web access not only because it allows me to read Metafilter, it also helps when my husband states something bizarre as if it were fact. I can check his veracity.

IOW, despite the fact that my attention span has gone down the tubes because I'm 56, I'm reading more than I ever have, and in the same way, so I'm still as dysfunctional and text-obsessed as ever. If it don't affect me, I don't care.
posted by Peach at 11:05 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think the whole breadth vs. depth thing is really person-specific anyway. There are just as many resources that cater to depth as there are ones that cater to breadth.

I was just going to make a similar argument. I can only speak for myself, but utilities like Google (and Yahoo, and Altavista) gave me the ability to find, at a moments notice, any strange or obscure fact my heart could desire: wanna know how fast a Veyron is? How about the name of the 13th episode of Farscape? Or maybe you'd prefer to find out how to calibrate for windage with a Mosin-Nagant.

These searches took me less than 10 seconds each, and in each instance, I found exactly what I was looking for.

And the thing is, while this gives me access to a wide breadth of information, it doesn't in any way stop me from 'drilling down' on a subject. It's a wonderful starting place and a great way to find out every little detail on pretty much anything.

I feel that with the tools I have at hand, I'm far less stupid than I was in high-school and college where I only had access to libraries.

[article isn't coming up for me, is there a cached copy elsewhere?]
posted by quin at 11:08 AM on June 10, 2008


Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Dunno... Did you Ask Jeeves?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:13 AM on June 10, 2008


YAY, BIKES!
posted by mwhybark at 11:13 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


One of my problems with reading stuff on the web is that most of it
is badly written crap. The web has created a voracious market for text,
and quality has suffered in the rush to satisfy the market.

I don't read much fiction lately, but when I do I don't make the mistake of
treating it like the extruded text product that I usually get from the web.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:13 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

I think this is just a result of getting older (with kids to play with and grass to cut, it's difficult to spend four hours at the library checking out journal entries), and also a result of reading hypertext on a glowing computer screen (we're all multitaskers, now).

The implications of having a vast amount of archived information close at hand does have tremendous implications for human relationships with knowledge, but I myself still love a good book, or "great, sprawling New Yorker stuff."
posted by KokuRyu at 11:20 AM on June 10, 2008


So our internet-A.D.D.led brains may well be worse at focusing on one subject, at diving deep into understanding that one thing very very well, but [...]

I think technology makes our understanding much broader and keener, actually; it's just the elbow grease that's drying up.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:21 AM on June 10, 2008


I honestly feel that Google has made me smarter overall. Well, "more knowledgeable" is probably a more precise way to put it. But as others have mentioned, Google can tell you something that you'd need to plow through a bunch of library books to find out. Would you find out other stuff by plowing through library books that you might not find out by using Google? Sure, but it's not an efficient use of time. In the same time I'd search through a library book, I could probably find out a lot more interesting things purposefully. You still acquire a decent amount of incidental information through Google searches, anyway.

Plus, when I want to just browse, I do still go to a library or a book store. Not to mention that Google searches for topics I didn't know much about have often lead to me reading a couple books on the subject.

I really feel like there are people who mostly enjoy reading (and learning) and those who mostly don't. Those who enjoy reading probably aren't any dumber because of Google, and I would guess are better off because it takes them less time to learn the same things. Those who don't enjoy reading are probably learning things they would not have made the effort to learn otherwise, though. It's much easier for someone in that category to convince himself to look something up on Google than to convince himself to get in the car, drive to the library, and wrestle with books to decipher a thing or two he heard about some subject. (Hell, I love learning but the library was only ever a weekly or every-other-week thing for me, growing up. It's just not as convenient.) I have several friends who just don't enjoy reading and they learn a lot because of the Internet. I can't see how it makes anyone stupid. I guess some people might trust things from bad sources, and it's more of an issue with the internet, but it's not that difficult to educate someone on what information is not terribly trustworthy.
posted by Nattie at 11:27 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


quin -

Ok, so google makes solving inane trivia a trivial matter. Fantastic. So how exactly does that defend your thesis that it's good for drilling down on a subject?
posted by vernondalhart at 11:27 AM on June 10, 2008


Yeah, "badly written crap" is everywhere and annoying, but avoiding it is a necessary drawback to having oodles of information at your fingertips at all times.

I do feel sometimes that there should be a 12-step program to help compulsive Googlers like myself realize that it is impossible to know everything.
posted by Return Zero at 11:27 AM on June 10, 2008


is our children learning?
posted by Hands of Manos at 11:28 AM on June 10, 2008


One other beautiful thing that Google has done for us is to completely obliterate that horrible feeling of "I know this answer to this random ass question but what the hell is it?" No more am I forced to wake up at four in the morning realizing that it's Keith Carradine that's the FBI agent in Dexter and who played Wild Bill in Deadwood not David Carradine. I can just look that crap up on the interwebs and not stress about it.

It may not make me actually smarter, but to my technophobe Dad, the internet and the speed at which I can get random useless information makes me seem a heck of a lot smarter. And really, isn't that the most important thing of all?
posted by teleri025 at 11:36 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


This article reminds of the the conversation in this thread about teaching children to memorize multiplication tables. In that thread, the discussion seemed to revolve around whether the easy access to computers and calculators obviated the need to memorize multiplication tables. Here, the question seems to be whether search engines somehow render the process of focus on a single topic, i.e. learning, obsolete.

I don't know that the answer is along the continuum of a yes or no answer to that question. There is tremendous value to a breadth of knowledge independent of the depth of that knowledge. In other words, they are two independent variables. The printing press and the scientific method enable further progression along the 'depth' axis, to the extent that publishing one's experiments and findings allows others to make rapid progress in a given field. Libraries and search engines enable greater progression on the breadth axis. Perhaps an ideal search engine, like an AI construct envisioned by the founders of Google, represents the furthest possible projection on the breadth axis without simultaneously connecting the brains of everyone ever, living or dead.

I think the author's concerns that the ability to find an answer or piece of information may become a substitute for understanding that answer, but that concern doesn't lie with the search engine, it lies with the structure and order of our lives.

If we are content to flit from topic to topic, that is being a dilletante, not an educated or intellectually curious person. Conversely, if I chose to focus on my field to the exclusion of everything else, I am being myopic, and small-minded. The mark of education and the source of insight and wisdom is going to come from exploring the distant spaces on that 2-axis graph, to make connections within the depths of different fields of study that are not apparent or cannot be made from only a superficial reading of a handful of topics.

The conversation in the thread about picture-taking during concerts has echoes of this. In that thread I added a comment by Susan Sontag because it seemed like so much of the linked article and the comments in the thread were echoes of what Sontag has written about photography. I know Sontag has been discussed on Metafilter at length, so I know that other people made the same connection, but it was amazing to me how people operating in the "New Digital Age" are finding many of the problems that she identified decades earlier.

Ultimately, we need an educational system focused more on teaching and learning, rather than on instruction and homework, that demonstrates a constructive or healthy application of the leverage offered by new technology to the process of learning, understanding, and developing wisdom. Though I suppose with enough people analyzing and approaching the technology from every conceivable angle, some ideas will be revealed to be better than others.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:36 AM on June 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


Google: A portal through which you can obtain whatever you want to know, whenever you want to know it, in whatever detail you like, from whomever you see fit.
posted by Return Zero at 11:37 AM on June 10, 2008


This hypothesis is years old. Where are the experimental tests?
posted by grobstein at 11:45 AM on June 10, 2008


I think it's in Plato's Phaedrus where it is said that the Egyptian scribes looked with concern and worry on the then-newfangled invention of "writing", as they thought that if people wrote things down, they would *gasp* make less effort to remember them, and maybe even *double gasp* lose their faculty of memory! OMG, the horror, the horror!

It's also interesting that in the context of Phaedrus, writing is a replacement to memory, and not to communication. Nowadays we tend to consider writing as a way of communication first, and a memory aid second. Of course, the Egyptian scribes could not predict that.

The same thing, I think, happens to Nick Carr. He looks upon the Internet as a defective printing press cum-library, not as a different thing with different processes. In fact, I can't remember one single article by Nick Carr where I agree with him on any major analysis. He seems to always be making minor points that, despite being objectively true one by one, consistently fail to add to anything like his stated thesis, which is always of a genteel Luddism.

Is the Internet making us stupid? I don't think so. Not much more than the invention of writing took away from us our memory.
posted by kandinski at 11:47 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ignoring the article, (dr;didn't load) I've lately had this creeping feeling that maybe the problem is with increased role of written words in communication and maybe, just maybe language itself is stupid and maybe even evil. (A viable alternative if you're bored with blaming religion, nationalism or male thought.) The whole thing why negative 'soundbite' politics is so effective comes down to how language works and I'm just no longer happy with how language works. Languages generalize an unlimited set of concepts into quite small set of words and much of our time is spent with arguing whose concept is the best match for a certain word. It makes us bad at politics, as word meanings are treated as finite resources. You say 'freedom', I say 'freedom' and then we have to find out whose freedom is better, instead of you saying 'freedom' and me saying 'fredbar'.

It is not that we should devise a better language, but stop that literary bullshit of keeping language as a sacred, beautiful thing. It is one of those all-too-human features that often leads us into trouble, like aggression or possessiveness.

That greater internet dickwad theory, that is an example of humans in language.
posted by Free word order! at 11:59 AM on June 10, 2008


I think it's in Plato's Phaedrus...

kandinski--dis you miss this (from the article in question)?:

Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.

So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different.

posted by ornate insect at 12:02 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Why do I always get zero results when searching for "a clue"?
posted by ...possums at 12:14 PM on June 10, 2008


tybeet writes "Not only is this device we type on a 'word processor' but it's an entertainment machine, a communications device, perhaps even a financial advisor and a personal organizer/calendar."

I have the Salad Shooter USB attachment. It's great, and I'm never without a means to shoot salad over the Internet, but sometimes it's hard to decide whether I should shoot a salad at one of my Twitter buddies or answer email. I'm thinking of getting the Bedazzler Firewire 800 with optional tire stretcher, but I am not sure that will simplify things.
posted by krinklyfig at 12:22 PM on June 10, 2008


Back in the days before Google, I was the go-to guy for factoids among my friends. If they wanted to know when the pyramids were built (answer: over a long period of time, from roughly 3000 to 1500 BC), or how much sodium was in a box of Shredded Mini-Wheats (answer: 30 mg), or whether the musk of civet cats was poisonous to humans (answer: yes, but you'd have to drink at least .25 ounces before lethality), they would just ask me. Nowadays, they can look up the information just as quickly as they could call me or stop by my house.

I don't like this change, because it means that they're starting to realize that ninety percent of my factoids were, in fact, entirely made up. So yeah, fuck Google, and the base-nineteen programming language it's built from.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:25 PM on June 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


(Also, ornate insect, it's interesting that you bring up Plato, because in Phaedrus, he talks a lot about the written word replacing memorization. It reminded me of some of the things this guy's talking about. You should read the Phaedrus sometime.)
posted by Greg Nog at 12:27 PM on June 10, 2008


A $1000 set of encyclopedias, once considered an incredible reference on a wide range of topics, can only provide a fraction of the knowledge that Wikipedia provides.

Yes but 80% of the knowledge on Wikipedia consists of articles on lightsaber fighting-styles. I'm only slightly joking.

Re: calculators. There are a large number of young(er) people at my work (age 18-24) who can't figure out "6 x 9" without flipping out their cell phone and using the calculator app. We have a somewhat math-intensive workplace, and the worst I ever saw was someone (who forgot their cellphone that day, I guess) trying to figure out "65 divided by 5" on a whiteboard, the long way.

No, I'm not making that up.
posted by Avenger at 12:30 PM on June 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


teleri025 writes "One other beautiful thing that Google has done for us is to completely obliterate that horrible feeling of 'I know this answer to this random ass question but what the hell is it?' No more am I forced to wake up at four in the morning realizing that it's Keith Carradine that's the FBI agent in Dexter and who played Wild Bill in Deadwood not David Carradine. I can just look that crap up on the interwebs and not stress about it."

Years ago when I was first into web development and trying to convince people of the utility of the Internet, a friend was challenging me on stuff you could or couldn't find. Well, we were stumped on who was Nixon's running mate in 1960, and I could not find it anywhere on any website. Well, over ten years later, and we have an answer. So, yes, the web was always pretty good as a resource, but it's better for that now than it used to be. Despite the criticisms, Wikipedia has been invaluable for this sort of quick research.
posted by krinklyfig at 12:32 PM on June 10, 2008


Is Google Making Us Stupid?

No, internal combustion engines are making us work harder.
posted by humannaire at 12:34 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


vernondalhart : So how exactly does that defend your thesis that it's good for drilling down on a subject?

Well, let's just do a practical demonstration.

Say I'm interested in Flashlights, a basic search brings me to the wiki. And this introduces me to the concept of an LED light, a little more digging through google brings me to several authoritative sources.

I can never be certain that what I'm reading is 100% correct, but that is true off the internet as well as on. The benefit, as I see it, of using Google is that cross checking facts is much quicker than using more traditional methods, and it gives me a vocabulary for discussing a subject with people more experienced than me.
posted by quin at 12:37 PM on June 10, 2008


ornate insect: gah. It's 5 AM here, and I should not post when I can barely read the screen. Apparently I jumped a bunch of paragraphs. For once I was in agreement with Nick Carr: I am very skeptical of his skepticism.

Greg Nog: chastened, chastised, chasyouname it.

Dang.
posted by kandinski at 12:37 PM on June 10, 2008


I made this [IMG] for use with my LiveJournal entries.
posted by Eideteker at 12:42 PM on June 10, 2008


We have a somewhat math-intensive workplace, and the worst I ever saw was someone (who forgot their cellphone that day, I guess) trying to figure out "65 divided by 5" on a whiteboard, the long way.

If people do math by typing numbers into calculators, I'm not sure it really qualifies as "math intensive"...
posted by effbot at 12:45 PM on June 10, 2008


Google isn't making people stupider. Trusting the first persons opinion on a Google search, without going on and learning more is making people stupider. Google is just a tool for stupidity, not a cause.
posted by joelf at 1:00 PM on June 10, 2008


Inline spellcheck has made me throw out my, um, what are they called ... the books with all the ... um ... words ... that you use for looking stuff up?

You know the book I'm talking about? I figured I didn't need it for nothing anymore.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:10 PM on June 10, 2008


You know the book I'm talking about? I figured I didn't need it for nothing no more.

Fixed.
posted by Caduceus at 1:21 PM on June 10, 2008


Of course it's making us stupid. Smart people know it's spelled Googol.

Wait, what?
posted by chimaera at 1:21 PM on June 10, 2008


We have a somewhat math-intensive workplace, and the worst I ever saw was someone (who forgot their cellphone that day, I guess) trying to figure out "65 divided by 5" on a whiteboard, the long way.

Sure, that's the obvious downside -- people get so dependent on their tools that even basic skills atrophy. Likewise, to circle back on the analogy, one of the consequences of getting good at dealing with the modern onslought of information is that one tends to lose the ability to focus deeply on particular issues.** It's a trade-off, to be sure, but for me it's easily worth it.

** I say that as if it's definitely true, but I, too, would love to see some supporting research.

Trusting the first persons opinion on a Google search, without going on and learning more is making people stupider.

To use the internet, the Googles, and the wikis well as an information resource, I think, requires some decent critical thinking skills. This is as opposed to getting one's "truth" from a single "authoritative" source -- say, an encyclopedia or the 6 o'clock news. Personally, I trust the former over the latter; at least the biases and varying points of view are more obvious, they are often critiqued or supplemented by other users with additional information or alternate points view (call it a poor man's peer review), and I can divine the "truth", myself, accordingly.

It's one of the reasons I love this place, actually.
posted by LordSludge at 1:36 PM on June 10, 2008


quin: An authoritative source for what, exactly? And what have you proved? You picked a random topic that for the most part isn't the sort of research that requires any depth at all. We all know what a flashlight is. Woohoo. So you found an article in some online magazine that seems to be (please note: I didn't actually read the whole article, I only skimmed it) a description as to the status of LED technology today. Yup, it's getting better.

But were you looking for that? Or did you just follow random links until you found something interesting? Did you begin the search looking with the intent of finding the current status of LED flashlights? Because if you didn't, then you haven't proven anything---in fact, you've really done the opposite. Finding random facts of interest, while it can be quite entertaining, is not dept. It is not research. It is factoids.

Here's a challenge for you, biased as the source may be. Describe to me the action of the Steenrod Algebra on the mod 2 cohomology of K(Z, n).

Find that online quickly. It might not even be that difficult, I honestly am uncertain.
posted by vernondalhart at 1:39 PM on June 10, 2008


Perhaps I should point out that it's not that I think that google does terrible things to our ability to focus. I only suggest that as a research source, it focuses on breadth far more than depth. Most peoples' self-congratulatory claims otherwise don't, in my opinion, change this fact.
posted by vernondalhart at 1:40 PM on June 10, 2008


I can divine the "truth", myself, accordingly

Or, as convenient, just pick one that suits you.
posted by effbot at 1:51 PM on June 10, 2008


So if you live 12 miles from the nearest library (me) and you want to zip out and look up something it will cost you two dollars for fuel. I think I will stick with google.
posted by notreally at 1:53 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Describe to me the action of the Steenrod Algebra on the mod 2 cohomology of K(Z, n).

I researched this, and while I found many things that were interesting, the language used was so far above my head that I honestly wouldn't know if I found the correct answer. I fault myself and my... let's call them "poor" math skills for this, though based on the volume of information that I found, it's certainly possible that the solution was right there in front of me.

So I'll just guess and go with "spongecake".

And what have you proved?

My point was simply that it certainly is possible to have an idle thought like, 'Gee, I wonder what kind of X would be good for Y', find your answer in a few short seconds, and then from there, continue to dig on the subject of X until you have a fairly comprehensive understanding of the subject. Strong enough, at least, that you could engage someone in a conversation about it and understand what was going on. I chose LED flashlights specifically because it's a great example of something everyday and mundane, where there is a wealth of technical information for anyone interested. Prior to being curious and doing a few searches, I wouldn't have been able to discern a Luxeon from a Nichia, now I have strong opinions on the subject.

Google is certainly a long way off from providing a higher education, but I don't think it's unreasonable to assert that you can learn quite a bit from a careful application of it.
posted by quin at 2:22 PM on June 10, 2008


And while all of that is interesting, it still isn't depth. It's simply thinly disguised breadth.

Perhaps my test was a little unfair---while it isn't that hard to find out the answer with a bit of searching (much easier if you know the language), the main source that I am aware of is in french, anyhow.

But I believe that my point still stands. There is an enormous gulf between aiming to study a specific subject/object/verb and clicking through an array of fascinating links. Both provide information, both increase your knowledge of the world. But the latter is rarely purposeful---and in each case you've described in your defence, your own description proves that.
posted by vernondalhart at 2:38 PM on June 10, 2008


No results found for "is google making me stupid?"
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:40 PM on June 10, 2008


your own description proves that.

Fair enough, I'll buy that.

Just don't ask me anymore questions like that. I'm still afraid to come out from under my desk, and my co-workers are starting to wonder.
posted by quin at 2:46 PM on June 10, 2008


All right, I'll play nicer next time. If you're ever interested, the answer can be found here. I think you need a subscription though, so you should be safe from whatever temptation you may feel.
posted by vernondalhart at 2:53 PM on June 10, 2008


So, I admittedly couldn't finish the article because I had an objection to the premise of it -- What's stupid about getting the exact information you want to have? That's not jet skiing, that's smart searching.

If I want to know all about something, I can still go through and do the leg work and I'll want to do it. I can do it online or I can go to a library. If I just want to know some random fact because it skims across my mind and I'm curious, I go find exactly what I want without having to read all the other stuff I didn't want to know in the first place.

I think the whole premise of "The Internet Is Making Us Shallow" is debunked by the re-frame that "The Internet Is Making Us More Rounded."

It's like blame documentaries for making encyclopedias less interesting or appealing.

Perhaps the author has just lost his attention span because what he's reading really doesn't interest him anymore? Or perhaps there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way what he's reading is being presented because it's different online than in print?

Or maybe it's a case of mental flexibility where his friends and he are not as mentally flexible as others?
posted by Gular at 3:00 PM on June 10, 2008


So, I admittedly couldn't finish the article because I had an objection to the premise of it -- What's stupid about getting the exact information you want to have?

While I didn't like the article, you've completely missed the point, which is not that it's stupid to get the exact information you want to have (the fact that that would be an insane thing to believe might have clued you in to the fact that it's not what the article was saying) but that (according to the ass-pulled pseudo-information in the article) getting information so easily and promiscuously makes "us" less likely to do in-depth reading. Mock the author if you will, but mock him for what he's actually saying.
posted by languagehat at 3:14 PM on June 10, 2008


Mind Hacks has a reply stating that the web is probably not stupid, rather, more worried.
While the Atlantic article warns against conclusions drawn from anecdotes, it is almost entirely anecdotal. Tellingly, it quotes not a single study that has measured any of the things mentioned as a concern by the author or anyone else.
posted by Korou at 4:20 PM on June 10, 2008


That response is really good.
posted by Tehanu at 4:40 PM on June 10, 2008


"You know, basically it's a Google. " -- Future president John McCain
posted by kirkaracha at 5:32 PM on June 10, 2008


Pointing to an absence of any well-designed systematic studies is a different ball of wax from pointing to a group of well-designed studies supporting or refuting some position. The Mind Hacks reply does the first thing.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:41 PM on June 10, 2008


Pointing to an absence of any well-designed systematic studies is a different ball of wax from pointing to a group of well-designed studies supporting or refuting some position. The Mind Hacks reply does the first thing.

Pointing out that someone's article about people's unwillingness to check their facts was actually an opinion piece based on no facts ranks pretty high in my Book of Awesome. Whether or not the original idea is true, the article was itself a beautiful example of the thing it complained about.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain joked on Monday that Google, the popular Internet search engine, had made investigating his list of potential candidates a little bit easier.

GOLF EQUIPMENT REPUBLICAN I LOVE AMERICA PATRIOT CHANGE

*waits by phone*
posted by Tehanu at 6:16 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Some replies in this thread makes me think of that ancient greek saying, "Ass carrying Google on his back makes no Socrates".
posted by effbot at 11:53 PM on June 10, 2008


It's fun to compare this trite from Nick Carr to the famed 1945 article by Vannevar Bush in the Atlantic Monthly as well. Bush seems to almost promise a greater depth of analysis and thought with the information revolution, which the potential only being realized today.

Nick Carr always came off to me like a naive luddite with really smart friends. His books have excellent titles with a compelling thesis, but the content doesn't really live up to it. It's hard to disagree with his thesis, but his arguments are always broken. In this case, he's comparing different types of reading. Just because the internet is unifying all communications, doesn't mean that there's only one kind. His examples are encylcopedia-replacements and newspaper-replacements, not books.
posted by amuseDetachment at 12:22 AM on June 11, 2008


Mock the author if you will, but mock him for what he's actually saying.

Or QED ... ;) I don't agree with the headline (i.e. "making us stupider") but I do agree with some of the author's points.

In the Clive Thompson article Carr links to, Thompson says, "Say you mention the movie Once: I've never seen it, but in 10 seconds I'll have reviewed a summary of the plot, the actors, and its cultural impact."

Likewise, say you're in a conversation with someone about Raskolnikov's prison dream at the end of Crime & Punishment. Having done your Internet research, you could quickly whip in that the dream signifies Dostoyevsky's vision of 20th century European nihilism or some other such notion without: a) really knowing any details about the actual source; b) making the critical judgments that led to such a conclusion; or even c) how your comments fit into the larger conversation that is happening.

So are you really smarter? Perhaps, if you weren't going to read the book anyway. However, if the immediate access to all of the information in the world is a click away ("Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off."), does that subtract from the value and education we receive from primary sources?

Joseph Weizenbaum's words struck a chord with me. He criticizes the "rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality." I'm not sold that such rejection is automatically a bad thing, but it is definitely something to think about.

Then again, I am also a luddite.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:40 AM on June 12, 2008


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