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Saturday, July 19, 2008
  Google > Stoopid?
Most people (from whom one might expect a comment) have already posted responses to Nicholas Carr's The Atlantic article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" I wanted time to think before I wrote (remember I'm introverted ;) Many of the kneejerk responses have been along the lines of "Carr's right, and it's a disaster! Now let's move on to the next topic..." Demonstrating nicely that Carr is right, in part the phenomenon he discusses of shorter attention spans when reading, and often writing, and therefore thinking online not only exists, but afflicts most of us. Carr provides a nice example to illustrate the phenomenon:
Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
Reading online is different from reading print, think Jakob Nielsen's studies back in the 90s which showed that online readers scan. Then bring it up to date and apply it to "academic" readers as well as the metaphorical "ordinary user":
As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.
Factor in the fact that today we live online much more than we did then, and the result is obvious: "the Internet" is changing the way we think. Reducing our capacity to process lengthy complex writing. In short, making us stupid!

But, is different worse? The authors of the study mentioned above wrote:
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.
Carr's argument presupposes that "reading in the traditional sense" is both traditional and good. Yet for the purposes of the "readers" assessed by the study, academics researching prior literature on a topic, reading has perhaps never been the long drawn out sequential process Carr inagines. I have been trying to teach students "How to avoid reading books" for decades. Why? Because scanning not reading works, for researching prior literature scanning beats reading! As MarkG commented "

Reading differently is not necessarily reading worse.

Carr also argues that the structures and processes of the Internet shape and control how we think, claiming:
The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.
In other words: reading differently is worse because we lose the capacity for sustained attention. This is like Socrates argument in Plato's Phaedrus that the new technology of alphabetic writing (to which ironically we owe our "memory" of Socrates) "will produce forgetfulness in those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written."

So Carr is in fine company. Like Socrates he is correct, memory has been eroded by writing and the capacity for sequential sustained reading is being eroded by the Internet. Also, like Socrates, he is wrong, the human capacity for living is not eroded so easily and the new mental states are not (most of us believe - since few today voluntarily give up writing and advocate burning libraries to the ground) worse ;)

Google need not make you stoopid, but it is making us think differently, and that needs serious practice and study.

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