Feeling dumber? Maybe it’s just Google-think.

Maybe it’s in the secret sauce?  In the last month, I’ve heard several commentaries on the notion that sustained use of Google is affecting our thinking processes. As if Google were the “bad television” of the 21st century, the meme apparently suggesting overuse of Google searching is dumbing us down because of our passive/receptive way of literally consuming information.

The Atlantic’s recent article Is Google Making Us Stupid? (July/August issue) is the most immediate and critical reading for interested information seekers. Google, Nicholas Carr suggests, has perhaps caused a permanent alteration of our information and reading behaviors, not just searching, but browsing, reading texts, researching, and sensemaking. We (many of us) now skim the surface, jump around from link to link, and cannot attend to an entire article online, let alone an entire book offline (remember, they are still available in printed form). He cites a few examples of Very Smart Persons exhibiting these symptoms. Perhaps he’s right.

My wife Patricia, being an artist, was on the leading edge of this wave. She was concerned that Google was interfering with her imagination, which is the source and font of all wonder for the creative life. She was searching Google in her dreams. And she reports that she finds herself doing similar behaviors, of relentless surfing and wandering the Net, losing total track of time. But she insists its a positive modification of mental life, if it is indeed permanent (she says “it’s the network, you’re able to see all the interconnections of things you never could before, you learn what’s behind everything.”) Something like, that anyway. Maybe she’s right – a couple of years ago she was on about Tristram Shandy being the first hypertext novel, and how that really heralded post-modern thinking. So maybe people were trying to think like Google makes us way back in 1759.

And just recently at the ELPUB conference in Toronto, in an offline conversation, John Senders (what, no Wikipedia article?), one of the founders of the field of human factors (from at least 1942), was observing basically the same thing (the “television is bad for you part”) about Google.  His observation was in effect that Google was changing the way children were learning and interacting with knowledge. Rather than trial and error, observation, finding out for themselves, etc., young children would (and do) just search and rely on whatever they locate online. His main concern was for the eventual (or even current) dumbing down of the future generations as they developed intellectually though their chief years of learning by relying on the common information appliance. He wanted to pursue the issue as a social science experiment, which is a good idea. Maybe John is right as well.

Carr’s article cites Larry Page’s statement to the effect that Google is creating a type of Internet AI, that we are all smarter when we tap into the world’s published information whenever we have a question or problem. I cite Carr’s concern that follows, that perhaps “easy access” is not the highest human or social value associated with information seeking.

“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.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”… Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

Carr also cites the UK’s JISC/CIBER program, a 5 year + study on online information behavior in UK education and society. I also found this provocative publication just in time to cite and interpret for the current Redesign Research study of eBooks user experience at the University of Toronto Libraries. CIBER essentially suggests the Google Generation is trending toward a style of thinking and working characterized by endless skimming, jumping around, and scavenging rather than thinking for oneself.

“It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

Maybe they are right as well. What do you think? Are we becoming Borg’d? Do you feel your link to the Matrix yet? Have you read a NOVEL lately? I will post my responses (agreements, disagreements, expansions) in a later post.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Cultural Design, Human Values, Information Ecology, Wicked complexity

One Comment on “Feeling dumber? Maybe it’s just Google-think.”

  1. todd Says:

    Yikes. Could be true. I am a heavy internet user and have been feeling dumber as time goes. Relying more on google, spell checker, calculator.
    Here is something to consider,
    The things that I still seem sharp in were learned first hand by trial and error (debugging computers), using software programs, fixing mechanical devices, and other hands on tasks.
    the book knowledge (now net knowledge) does not seem to stick very well.


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