Is GOOGLE making us STOOPID?

Really, really, REALLY interesting piece in this month’s Atlantic Monthly on the impact Google (and the general ubiquity of information now available Internet-wide) may be having on our cognitive processes and attention spans. The author posits, in effect, that as we’re becoming intellectually broader, we’re also growing shallower; our attention is being scattered as our concentration is diffused. It’s well worth reading.

Some key points (all of the following are direct quotes from the story):

As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”

The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.

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The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.

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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.

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“…we risk turning into ‘pancake people’ — spread wide and thin as we connect with a vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

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3 Responses to Is GOOGLE making us STOOPID?

  1. Julie Emery says:

    You got me to stay up past my bedtime to read this. Food for thought, if anyone has the attention span to get through the entire article!
    I will admit I keep watching my nieces and nephews, trying to determine if they think differently, react differently because of the internet and the way it infiltrates every corner of their lives.
    Thanks for a thought provoking read!

  2. Pat Mulligan says:

    So true!! In fact, I couldn’t fininsh the whole post– I think I have developed ADD with the help of the Internet and our need in this business to multi-task :p

  3. I always learned my history and science best through stories or teaching. Yes, with the web, I pretty much glance for the info I want. It’s hard for me to read long articles or stories online.

    BUT.. I also look up more things. The kids and I were reading Island of the Blue Dolphins and I could not remember what a devil fish looked like, so we looked it up right then and there! Pretty cool!

    I am also able to flip back and forth between 2 email services (1 business, 1 personal), tons of social media, 6 web pages, watch tv, and take care of my kids all at the same time – ok, only on a good day.

    So, yes, in some ways I am using less of my brain for deep research – the pancake thing does apply. (We actually talked about this at church with knowing words of Scripture, but not being deep in Relationship).

    I don’t think we can be experts in everything, but there should be some areas in which we should be “masters” or in “apprentice-ship” mode. Thanks for the reminder!

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