Thursday, November 26, 2009

Are We Getting Stupider or What?

In one of the long-standing intellectual pillars of publishing, the Atlantic Monthly has recently came out with an article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? which continues the debate whether the computer age has indeed resulted in our over-reliance on compact, readily-available information.

As Nicholas Carr believes, we’re simply decoding information as we scan text on the web. For probably many of us like him, deep reading of densely formulated text has become a struggle. But here’s another worry that Carr ponders: the web’s simplification of information decoding has ultimately reduced our ability to think deeply as well. Our brains are so used to reading short blog posts or text messages under 140 characters that we’ve no longer the time nor patience to thoughtfully carry out our thoughts cogently. As Carr puts it:

Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

However, we’ve been paralyzed with fear about technological advancements since the earliest days of thought: Plato feared that writing would cause our memorization capacities to fade; Gutenberg’s press would lead to intellectual laziness; and thinking changed as Nietzsche’s words morphed from rhetoric to telegram style.

On other extreme end is futurist Jamais Cascio, who argues that “Google isn’t the problem; it’s the beginning of a solution.” Indeed, with intelligence augmentation, new technologies would be able to “filter” what we are interested in; and seamlessly tailor our information absorption according to our needs. This opposite end of the spectrum argues that civilization requires diversity and innovation – and technology is a means to that end. Information professionals must be aware of this dichotomy: when much information is too much information? As Herbert Simon once said, "wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." How can we scan when we must interpret and decode?


ur biggest fan said...

simplification is an art.

perhaps dense text never prompted people to think deeply. just merely the effort to wade through text in order to get to a simple idea may not yield any deep thoughts. the average person is not that smart.

put it in another perspective - the average person is learning more without the need to feel stupid.

Dean Giustini said...

The interesting question is not whether Google is making us stupid but whether Twitter is making us stupid. Of all the disruptive web tools to achieve the status of a verb, Twitter is by far the more controversial. What I find interesting is that both Google & Twitter have made me more discerning. I still do deep reading despite my heavy usage of Twitter. And since I adopted Twitter in lieu of RSS, I have published more papers. Some of my best work lays ahead, thanks to Twitter.


Allan said...

Intersting point Dean. Herbert Simon had written about the information age in 1971. In an information rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a "wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."


Patricia Foster said...

Check out the book: Writing space: computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print By J. David Bolter. It has an excellent description of how culture/reading/writing habits change as we move from one text technology to another. However, this book is available only in print so it may take some time to read :-)