Wednesday, July 23, 2008

On the heels of all of the hubbub in my life comes this article, the cover story of The Atlantic that I viewed in a number of airport newsstands in the past week:

Is Google Making Us Stupid?
Good question. It could probably have been reworded as: Is Google Rewiring Our Brains? 'Cause hey, I don't know about you, but there are gonna be doofuses (doofi?) out there regardless of whether or not they use Google.

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 Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. 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.

Huh. Anybody remember how to footnote? How to create a bibliography? Try it without Googling it. Check out an MLA Handbook and see if you can concentrate long enough on it to follow the directions.

The conflict here is most likely occurring when those who are professional writers - journalists, novelists, historians, what-have-you - are contending with deadlines. No, I'm not suggesting that there should not be any deadlines; everybody has to finish up their work sometime. I'm just saying that an accelerated world calls for even more accelerated measures simply in order to keep up. Having to come up with news on a daily basis is one thing - newspapers have applied that since it was possible for them to do so. The advent of radio, then TV, and now the Net have made it imperative for some time that every morning on your doorstep ain't enough. The radio can break into scheduled broadcasts to bring you what they see as breaking news, and TV does the same. The web accelerates things even more by combining all of the above media with even greater speeds - up to the second reporting. It can certainly feel like a ride on a JetSki. And I'm sure that, in this day and age, it can be even more difficult to try to teach others how not to skim the surface if that is all you feel like you are doing.

I can just see how this is changing the way kids are taught. For general knowledge, one used to be told to check an encyclopedia, then start looking in depth - books and periodicals from magazines to newspapers. Documentaries and radio broadcasts have been added to those piles of sources. The biggest problem now is that it might all be too easy to just call it all up with a word search on a search engine such as Google - the trick after that is doing one's best to discern what is true and useful from what is bogus and blowhardy. Boy, this must make nonfiction term papers a whole new experience for teachers who must read and grade 'em. Oh, right - they're on a deadline, too.

Dear God - everybody needs to be reeducated!!!

It is kinda scary when you think about it, and also when you think that this could well be opening up a new gap between the haves and the have-nots: those with regular Net access have these rewired brains that can think like the computers with which they interface, while those who don't will probably be seen, unfairly, as slower thinkers and possibly less intelligent ones as a result.

However, after reading Nicholas Carr's impressions of Google's "science of measurement" in their never-ending analyses of behavioral data collected from their search engine, I'm not sure who is really being used in the above scenario:

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.

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.


Makes me want to go to the library and start reading War and Peace just to see if I can get through it and free myself from the commercial tyranny of Google in the process. Time to crack some spines, people - the spines of books, that is.


saintseester said...

I can see it happening even with my programming students. Instead of working on an assignment for hours and days (as they should!), they will try to google something close to the desired problem. Often they turn in something within the realm, but no where near what I actually asked them to do.

Do they think when (IF) they ever find a job that they are not going to be presented with new problems to solve?

Leigh C. said...

A fella I knew who was TA-ing an English class at a local university took one look at a final term paper he was grading and started guffawing. "Oh, this girl has FAILED!" he said. The student in question had ganked her entire paper from off the web and hadn't even bothered to erase the URLs from the tops and bottoms of the pages. What's even more insane is that she contested his grade, and all he had to do at the hearing was show them that paper.

How DO we instill some kind of work ethic in people when they can reach a lot of stuff with the touch of a button - stuff that only reaches the ballpark of relevancy in many cases? Should the schools start monitoring the sites that are in use and blocking the ones that are erroneous as well as the usual adult sites?

How do we teach people to truly THINK again - 'cause hey, who knows when the electricity's gonna go out? ;-)