Is Google Making us Stupid?

Sigfrid Lundberg's Stuff 2010-04-14

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Nicholas Carr, 2008. Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains. The Atlantic Magazine.

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.

writes Nicholas Carr, and continues a bit further down:

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 first read this article in a printed Swedish translation. It was about a year and a half ago. Months later I found the original and started to read that. Initially I did not realize that I was actually rereading it, but for some reason I then returned to the translation and could establish the connection between. It was when I started to follow Carr's arguments in some detail that I recognized the article.

Texts on the Internet are generally brief. I don't say that Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky's texts somehow become more condensed in digital editions, but most digital texts are entries shorter than this one and they are shorter than articles in printed newspapers and magazines. We have accustomed ourselves to brevity and and perceive difficulties when reading longer texts. This is just the symptoms; Nicholas Carr reviews the evidence and I'm convinced. Our media consumption habits are changing, and he even manages to convince me that this affects the brain itself.

Does it matter? Nicholas Carr does not even try to answer that question. It might be that the Internet brain has acclimatized itself to the new information environment, and that is neither good or bad. He mentions Plato’s Phaedrus, [in which] Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, 'cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.'

Then, through history, this bemoaning has been repeated at each step when media production and consumption passes through a new period of rapid development.

Carr claims that Socrates was right: People's memory deteriorated when they no longer had to memorize Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. He also claims that for each of these historic changes the benefits have exceeded the drawbacks.

We don't know if this will be the case this time, though.

This entry is part of my series Readings on digital objects


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My name is Sigfrid Lundberg. The stuff I publish here may, or may not, be of interest for anyone else.

On this site there is material on photography, music, literature and other stuff I enjoy in life. However, most of it is related to my profession as an Internet programmer and software developer within the area of digital libraries. I have been that at the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen (Denmark) and, before that, Lund university library (Sweden).

The content here does not reflect the views of my employers. They are now all past employers, since I retired 1 May 2023.

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