Back in 2008, technologist Nicholas Carr wrote a piece for The Atlantic titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr’s primary argument in the article was that the expansive and ever-growing Internet has detrimentally affected people’s brains and significantly decreased their capacity to concentrate. Carr contests that the generation of insightful, contemplative readers who could quietly sit down and read lengthy pieces of literature has evolved into a fast-paced, caffeine-driven militia of digital whizzes skimming through snippets of information sprawled across the Internet landscape.
While the easy answer to Carr’s title, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” is that the Californian corporation is clearly not making us stupid, he does offer compelling suggestions, anecdotes and ideas that suggest the Internet as a whole is limiting our cognitive potential. In the article Carr provides an accurate metaphor that frames this transformation: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Clearly there is much truth to this. Think of the last time you sat down and made it through an entire novel. For me, it was when I was freshman in high school reading Lord of the Flies. Since then, I shamelessly use Spark Notes or just skim through entire novels, not bothering to deeply read the prose.
In this technologically driven era, it’s becoming exceedingly toilsome to concentrate. We wake up, check our text messages, submit a word on Words with Friends, boot up our computers, check our fantasy football teams, post a Facebook comment, write an email and browse through numerous headlines on the Yahoo! homepage looking for something that strikes us. We sit in class and secretly disguise our phones under a notebook as the professor lectures. When we come back at night to read for a class, we lethargically breeze through it while talking to friends.
I’m not saying that technology hasn’t had beneficial effects upon our society. The days of sitting in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries doing research can now be done on a laptop at the beach. Finding a Chinese restaurant nearby can be done simply by talking into your phone (thank God for Siri!).
However, even throughout history, there has always been skepticism towards the glorification of technology. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates resisted the development of writing, fearing that people would rely on the written word and forget to remember ideas in their head. Even the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press struck up worry that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness.
Before reading Carr’s piece, I was mesmerized by the amount of information that is right at our fingertips. However, after reading it, there are some new perspectives. We Google search, click on hyperlinks, open up new tabs and let our eyes glaze over it all. But how much do we really retain of this slew of information? Our knowledge becomes like pancake batter, dropping onto the surface and spreading out thinly over a vast horizontal landscape of data. Concentration and focus wane because we feel obligated to keep skimming and skimming. We are compelled by those blue highlighted links on web pages that link us to more. The mouse we use is pounded by our constant clicking.
The Luddites of the world, or any contemporary naysayer for that matter, would drool over Carr’s work. He recently published a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which further explores his ideas in the 2008 article. I think that it is extremely necessary to keep an open mind to both the positives and pitfalls that technology offers. As we steamroll out more innovative and advanced products, our concentrations may begin to exponentially dwindle.
Surprisingly, I was able to get through Carr’s 4,216 word article with little to no distractions. Perhaps it was because I knew, based on his argument, that it would be a blatant paradox to stop reading. But the optimist in me thinks that I still have the ability to channel my concentration and really read deeply into a work of words. Maybe the same goes for you, if you’ve made it through this commentary, especially if you’re reading it online at SCStudentMedia.com.