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Nick Carr: Is Google making us stupid?

The human brain is malleable. As we use Google are we becoming Google? Do we really want that?

The Atlantic

It's not yet on the Web, but In the the July issue, The Atlantic has an exceptional and provocative article by Nick Carr, asking "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" It's a riff on Carr's book, The Big Switch (reviewed here), but covers new ground and has me worried. Carr writes:

The human brain is almost infinitely malleable...James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind "is very plastic...The brain...has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions."

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.

"Excellent!" you say, "Now I'll be able to retrieve an infinite amount of information, like Google." Maybe. Or maybe our ability to retain and process information will continue to dwindle. Remember books? Those were the things we read before e-mail, Web browsing, and Twitter came on the scene.

Speaking of Twitter, am I the only one who views it as further evidence of a soundbite culture that struggles even to think beyond 140-character blips?

We really don't want to think like Google. We don't want to speak like Twitter. We don't want to converse like e-mail. And yet we increasingly do, as the Internet reshapes the world in its image. Carr writes:

The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition...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.

When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is recreated in the Net's image. It injects the medium's content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we're glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper's site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.

Which is why I'm returning to my books. I read a fair amount--the classics, mostly--but generally only when I'm traveling. As Carr points out, I, too, have difficulty reading when my computer beckons with instant gratification. I read each night to my kids before they go to bed, but Carr's article has me thinking that I need to return to doing the same.

Over the weekend, the Asays determined that we're going to have "reading time" each night for an hour before bed. Everyone (except my 5- and 3-year-old) will read for an hour. My kids were already doing this. The change is for me and for my wife. I need to exercise my brain to think again, and not merely process.

Care to join me? Or is the concern overblown?