Google rots your brains

I found a fascinating article from the ever-interesting Nicholas Carr (remember "IT Doesn't Matter"?) on how Google is making us stupid.

I reproduce an extract here as you won't have time to read it:

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... My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I'm reminded of a phrase from the delightful Doctor in the House books by Richard Gordon, about last-minute cramming for medical exams, which went something like "dashing pell-mell down the corridors of knowledge, snatching handfuls along the way". Google is all about snatching handfuls.

As I quickly scanned this article it occurred to me to give you three more factors besides Google:

Magazines had already superceded books bacause they were the only way to stay current before the advent of the internet. I still read books for stimulation, but I long ago stopped reading books to stay up with the latest developments. As a result people were already becoming accustomed to two-or-three page summations, to having their knowledge pre-digested by journalists and delivered in little chunks like petfood.

Television had of course already destroyed most traces of critical analysis or systematic thought in large tracts of the population, especially what passes as news and current affairs today as compared to even twenty years ago. Most TV news makes the USA Today newspaper look in-depth. If it can't be delivered in a thirty-second sound-bite it isn't covered.

The third contributor to speed reading is software user guides and manuals which are so packed with useless repetitive puerile crap and contain so few nubs of useful information that nobody actually reads them any more. Most IT people are adept at extracting the juice from a hundred-page manual in a few minutes. Nowadays most manuals are only provided in pdf on a CD which only hastens the process.

My mother is 84 now. She marvels at how I can read a newspaper article in less than a minute while simultaneously talking to her. None of my friends would notice.

On another topic [that one went on much too long], Carr's most telling point is "The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure". I don't think it has one and I shudder to think how many generations will have to pass and how many horrors emerge before it develops one.


the internet changes our brains

New Scientist: the internet changes our brains

This is no crackpot theory. this is Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at the University of Oxford, and former director of the UK's Royal Institution.

See also:

modern brains

Yet more thoughtful comment on the effects on modern brains

we know that the "expert reading brain" as we know it includes a beautifully complex circuit that integrates simpler decoding skills with what I call "deep reading" processes such as critical analysis, analogical thought, inference and insight... The questions that our society must ask revolve around whether the time-consuming demands of the deep-reading processes will be lost in a culture whose principal mediums advantage speed, multitasking, and processing the next and the next piece of information

Maryanne Wolf is director of the centre for reading and language research at Tufts University, where she is a professor of child development

Tactics for coping with multitasking

Research shows we are less efficient when switching between tasks, whatever we may think. However in the modern world perhaps we just have to cope.

More evidence of our inability to multitask

From Nature

our brains are wired for "selective attention" and can focus on only one thing at a time. That innate ability has helped humans survive in a world buzzing with visual and auditory stimulation. But we keep trying to push the limits with multitasking, sometimes with tragic consequences. Drivers talking on cellphones, for example, are four times as likely to get into traffic accidents as those who aren't...
people think they can effectively multitask, but they are really shifting their attention rapidly between two things and not getting the full effect of either...

Oh how I wish I could be back on that conference panel discussion where I got howled down as an old curmudgeon for insisting my Gen Y employees concentrate on the task I was paying them for.

Outsourcing memory to Google

Outsourcing memory to Google (and to my blog - I'm saving this link for later)

There is no Dictionary in the Mind

Try to imagine a society where no one has ever looked up anything. Imagine an oral culture where "to look up something" is an empty phrase. Now try describing it to that society.

It's a bit like describing horses as automobiles without wheels.

It took a few thousand years for the mapping of language to become second nature; for writing to be not seen as something separate from the mind. And folks like Socrates and Plato complained that writing discouraged the use of memory, and consequently its neglect.

What they could not foresee were the emergent consequences. While the oral word was fleeting (it's why Homer rhymes, it's easier to remember), writing communicates across time and space. It allowed us to structure and systematize knowledge. It permits whole new architectures of information -- history, law, logic, mathematics, business.

Now, can you imagine what the emergent consequences of Google might be?

Speech is too fleeting for analysis. Writing moved our mental process from a "prose of narrative" to a "prose of ideas." Where might Google take us? Aristotle used the written word to develop reasoning; logos, the not-quite-translatable word meaning logic, speech or ultimately, just word.

The Google effect is potentially transformative, not just a different form or an amplification of existing forms. It presents something altogether new. The word for it is discontinuity.

I hope you're right

Just today, a colleague was telling me how their family disaster plan when the big quake hits Wellington includes running down the hill to the local town centre to pillage (a) the supermarket and (b) the library. The supermarket for extra supplies, the library for books on how to do survival stuff. The internet is making us feeble in the face of the real physical world in the same way that mattresses, cars and fatty food have.

Maybe Google does represent a hol' noo paradime. We'll see. I hope to live long enough to see it. But I'm not convinced that the loss of oral transmission of culture is the same thing as loss of memory. Once again I hope you're right because my wetware memory sucks.

The garbage doesn't even go in, never mind come out

On more than a few occasions I've printed out homework for the children and asked them questions about statements "they had written" and been faced with blank faces suggesting it was the first time they'd heard the statements. Clearly the modern generation can't even remember what they've written themselves five minutes before.

Of course there might be another explanation for it ;-)

James Finister

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