Saturday, July 19, 2008

Google Makes Us Stupid

Nick Carr has gotten lots of attention for his Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Sample quote:
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
I tend to agree; I've experienced the same phenomenon . . . I still read books all the time, but I find that whereas I used to be content to sit and read for many hours (i.e., back in college, when I had the time to do that), now I find that after a page or two I'm instinctively looking up as if I'm going to turn my attention to something else. It could be an effect of my job as well -- I constantly find myself bouncing back and forth between documents (i.e., one second I'm looking at something that I'm writing, and a few seconds later I'm looking at a court decision, a transcript, the opponent's brief, a spreadsheet, etc., and then back to what I'm writing).

Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine has an interesting, although I think unconvincing, response:
Carr begins his piece describing how smarter he is while using Google. What if Carr is right? What if we were getting dumber when we are off Google, but we were getting loads smarter while we were on Google? That doesn't seem improbable, and in fact seems pretty likely.

Question is, do you get off Google or stay on all the time?

I think that even if the penalty is that you lose 20 points of your natural IQ when you get off Google AI, most of us will choose to keep the 40 IQ points we gain by jacking in all the time.
For one thing, it seems a bit of hyperbole to suggest that the decision to use or not use Google means a swing of 60 IQ points -- the difference between mentally retarded and, oh, about the top 1%.

I suspect Kevin Kelly is referring to the notion (discussed here) that Google (or access to the entire Internet) makes us smarter by enabling us to look up all sorts of information instantaneously, rather than wasting time memorizing data. (The reason I think Kelly means this is because he suggests the IQ effect of Google is temporary, which implies that you're not able to remember anything that you had been discussing or reading about while online.)

The problem with that view, to quote a psychology article, is that "drill and practice" on seemingly "low level" skills -- such as "basic knowledge" -- are in fact "just as essential to complex and creative intellectual performance as they are to the performance of a virtuoso violinist." As Steve Dutch says:
Memorization is not the antithesis of creativity; it is absolutely indispensable to creativity. Creative insights come at odd and unpredictable moments, not when you have all the references spread out on the table in front of you. You can't possibly hope to have creative insights unless you have memorized all the relevant information. And you can't hope to have really creative insights unless you have memorized a vast amount of information, because you have no way of knowing what might turn out to be useful.
Unless you have lots and lots of information in your head -- without depending on Google to magically serve up information whenever you might need it -- you won't know what you should be looking up on Google in the first place. And so I wonder if, as people come to depend more and more on being able to look up information at the drop of a hat rather than bothering to memorize it, people will be less able to think creatively and formulate new insights and connections.


Blogger James said...

The importance of committing things to memory counts against *trusting* to Google for access to what we've already learned.

The need to develop understanding and a systematic knowledge counts against dependence on Google to learn only "on demand."

But there's another cost in learning: the cost of knowing what isn't so. On this, I think Google helps in 2 ways. Ready access to answers can prevent lengthy and futile speculation that's uninformed (and if you're with others, sometimes long arguments). And the presence of *multiple* answers can often place the options in a disputed matter immediately before you, as well as the sources for understanding them better.

12:48 PM  

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