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Google is making more of us brighter


Nicholas Carr speaking at the 12th Annual Gild...

Nicholas Carr speaking at the 12th Annual Gilder/Forbes Telecosm Conference on May 28, 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is Google Making Us Stupid?  (July/August 2008)

Critique of Nicholas Carr’s piece in the Atlantic.

No.

Google is contributing to putting a university in everyone’s pocket – that is if you have a smartphone or tablet and Internet access. So remarked Lt. Col. Sean Brady in his MBA Blog in the Financial Times in 2011.

In 2008 Nicholas Carr jumped on the Internet / Google bandwagon of scaremongering sensationalism by suggesting that the Internet is doing something to our brains.

He did little better with ‘The Shallows’ (2008) of which the Guardian Book review said:

‘Buy it, knife out all the pages, bin a few, shuffle the rest and begin to digest. It may not be what the author intended, but you might learn more, and make some stimulating connections along the way – just like you do on the internet’. (Tucker, 2011)

He  holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.A., in English and American Literature and Language, from Harvard University. His BA is presumably in literature, not psychology or engineering or computer science.

He says he’s one of America’s ‘leading internet intellectuals’?  Who qualifies this?

Does this make him an authority on neuroscience or digital literacies or even web-science and the Internet? 

Carr opens and closes this article with images and words from the film 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Stanley Kubrick isn’t the author, that’s Arthur C. Clarke. At least he has a first class honours degree in physics and mathematics. But he is writing fiction – rather like Carr. Anyone can quote H G Wells, Jules Verne or the script writers of the Star Trek Series but this hardly lends credibility.

This is Journalism for a Sunday Colour supplement.

Not science, not academic research – it is closer to stand up comedy.

Carr (2008) writes:
‘I can feel it, too. 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’. (Carr, 2008)

Carr may feel these things and express it this way, but this does not mean that this is going on. On the contrary. Carr confuses brain and mind and doesn’t know the difference. What he writes he is a personal view, stream of consciousness, spurious, unscientific and easily challenged.  Just because Carr thinks it and writes it down doesn’t make it so.

If his concentration drifts then this is an internal cognitive issue, not the propensity of what is going on around to distract. Some people are more distractable than others, while our ability to focus or drift will change too. When the chips are down and you have to focus for an exam that is what people generally do.

‘I think I know what’s going on’. Carr writes, ‘For more than a decade now.  I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet’.

Is this put in to support his credentials?

What precisely is he doing here?

Fiddling around in Wikipedia, or writing a blog? His role with Encyclopedia Britannica is pure PR – he had a dig at Wikipedia, is a popular writer of general fiction so they asked for a piece of him. Anyone can contribute to Wikipedia – though I hope Carr is keeping his ideas to himself as the contents of articles like this should and would be very quickly shredded as intellectually inaccurate and weak.

The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Carr says (2008)

There’s a naive view here that the authors or editors who use hyperlinks know what they are doing and even link to information that has validity. Finding text to support your thesis doesn’t meant that either they or you are correct – where is the counter argument? The balance?

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. (Carr 2008)

Does ‘flow’ expose Carr’s ignorance of how the mind works? There is no physical flow, rather there is perception, filtered by various sensors, then physically constructed across a multitude of pathways.  How much does the average person actually spend in front of a screen online? Were similar things not also said about TV frying our minds, and before that Radio, and before than the book?  If you agree with Marshall McLuhan then you must accept that books, radio and TV are still around – we are not being uniquely, exclusively or universally cudgelled by the Internet or Google all our waking lives. Nor does a clever metaphor enhance credibility – this is your feeling and impression, not fact.

Behaviours are very easily changed.

You learn that  you cannot have all the candy in the candy store, that you can’t read all the books in the library, that the paper you pick up you will browse until your eye is caught by something of interest.

Just because ‘ the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation’ does not mean this is the case for everyone else, however much they might nod along in agreement.

‘I’m not the only one’. Carr writes, ‘When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences’.  (Carr, 2008)

Which friends? How many? What did you ask them? Where is it written down? Would you describe as mentioning what you say your friends think as evidence, as objective, as anywhere close to the research that is required before such claims as those you make can be substantiated?

The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Carr says, (Carr, 2008)

Nonsense of course. Let’s do some research. We may find the opposite. That a little reading excited the curiosity so that a lot more is then done. Short and long can be equally good, or bad, it depends on context, author, presentation – a plethora of things. What has been discovered about the use of blogs? That people read more, or less? That people write more or less? With 1.5 million words online my 13 blogging habit may be exceptional, though plenty use a blog to develop books, to share a thesis as it is written, to review books and courses …

“I can’t read War and Peace  anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” Carr writes, 2008.

So what. This isn’t evidence, it’s hearsay. It’s anecdotal. One person  in response to a leading question and a quote selected for the sole purpose of supporting the hypothesis. These are mental habits so much as cognitive behaviours. You can’t change ‘mental habits’ like buying a new car – how you think, your memories, have all constructed and adapted to your unique experience.

Experiments or research? Does  he  know the difference? And can the tests you suggest ever be done? Internet use can not be isolated from everything else we do in our lives: read books and papers, watch TV, listen to the radio, attend a lecture, watch a lecture online, join a webinar or class, read a letter, an email, a blog, listen to a podcast, look at pictures you’ve taken and those that you haven’t.

But a recently published study of online research habits , conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. Carr writes (2008).

Which ‘scholars’? If they have names provide them. Just as there is no evidence that they went back to read the longer article, there is no evidence to say that they didn’t. In all likelihood having had the opportunity to skim through so many abstracts they saved what mattered and then did go back and read. In the process they gained through serendipitous inquiry that is usually far more structured than you suggest – people click through other papers by the same author, or on the same subject, or from a faculty they are interested in … and may by chance and out of curiosity click on other things too. How do you think research on how people read microfiche were carried out, and what did it find? What about going through newspapers at the National Newspaper Archive where invariably, Internet like, you eyes skims over the page and everything it contains. Whilst some aspects of the world around us is changing – a bit. We aren’t changing at all. We are literate, we live longer … but there cannot be some overnight evolutionary change in what we are.

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense. Carr writes, 2008.

Who says? What makes it clear? Who did the research? Where is the research?  It may be clear to Carr but where is the evidence? Where is the data? The research? The peer reviewed papers that support your view?

What are these ‘new forms of reading’ – how do you define old forms of reading? Have you considered how people read fifty years ago, 500 or thousand years ago? From manuscripts, or in cuneiform on papyrus? What we are experiencing is an expansion in the way that we can engaged with content, that’s all. We read different things in different ways from a poster on a hoarding as we drive to a station, to a timetable of train times, the front page of a newspaper, a blog post, business reports, email, text message …

We read, for better or worse, with greater ease or difficulty in part depending on the way the text is presented and the affordances of the webpage or reading software if we’ve downloaded it. We don’t take handwritten notes because we don’t need to. We may opt to read online or in some cases order a physical book. Far from new forms of reading, there is a great deal of effort being put in to retain the best that came out of print – in all its forms, whether a book, leaflet or poster while trying to avoid clutter, fonts, layouts and links that would disturb how we read i.e. the technology is designed to perform to suit us, we are not adjusting to suit the technology – far from it. If something doesn’t work we say so and ignore it.

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. Says Carr, 2008. Medium of choice over what other choices? So, we watched a lot of TV in the 70s, 80s – and 90s and 00s by the way … just as generations in the 40s and 50s sat around the radio. Now we have a multitude of choices – and if our radio, our TV and our paper are delivered to a tablet what is it that we are doing that is so different to these previous ages?

‘We may well be reading more today …’ are we, or are we not? And if so why? And so what. More people are literate. There is easier access to anything. Suggestions based on casual observation or hear say have suggested that people who spend too long online in social networks don’t have a life – the evidence suggests that the social life is an extension of what goes on in the real world and that it encourages people to arrange to meet up.

Maryanne Wolf, Carr tells us,  worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace.

From a review by Douglas (2008)  in the New Scientist I read that ‘Just as writing reduced the need for memory, the proliferation of information and the particular requirements of digital culture may short-circuit some of written language’s unique contributions—with potentially profound consequences for our future’.

The worst error Wolf makes here is to imply that our minds function in any way like a circuit-board, to start with the is the way Marshall McLuhan spoke of what TV and mass media was doing to our brains in the 1960s – a metaphor is a dangerous explanation as it implies something that isn’t the case.  The mind is not a circuit board. This is how Marshall McLuhan spoke of what was going on in the 1950s and 1960s. Using the terminology of the time to suggest that some kind of revolution was occurring and that there would be no going back – not too surprisingly life goes on very much as it did fifty years ago, even a hundred and fifty or a thousand years ago. We grow up, we live, we may have children, we may raise them, we get older, we die. More of us learn to read, more of us go to university, more of us drive and have TVs – and increasingly, though by no means universally, we have access to a computer and/or the Internet.

When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. Carr writes (Carr, 2008) Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

So what? Handwriting is different to typing, and writing in pencil is different to ink pen or biro, and typing on a mechanical typewriter is different to a laptop, iPad or smartphone. The typewriter here as assistive technology, to the able bodied simple an enhancement of what we can do with other kit and tools.

The human brain is almost infinitely malleable, says Carr using his anecdote about Nietzsche as the clinching evidence.  Huh? How scientific is a phrase such as ‘almost infinitely malleable’. Define your parameters. Offer some precision. You don’t because you can’t. And as you’re not after the truth you’re not about to understate any research.

The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away.

So there were no scientific minds before clocks? Ptolemy? Leonardo da Vinci? Others can add to the list. What has it taken away? Rather let’s consider what it has brought in access, accessibility and scale. ‘A university in my pocket’ is how an Open University MBA student described learning online with access to the resources of the course, but also to a wealth of other online content.

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.

It can be measure and is – there is a figure, however much it grows that we are currently below … what is an ‘intellectual technology’? How do you account for the phenomenon that the Internet through people connecting is sending people out of the house and office to meet fellow human beings to interact away from the keyboard. You find a like-mind you eventually want to talk to them face to face. In this respect use of the Internet has a counter balance – it encourages doing other things.

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. Carr writes, (Carr, 2008)

Distractability has less to do with the distractions around us, and more to do with our desire or propensity to be distracted. We all know people who can write essays and revise for exam with the radio on or in front of the TV, while others need the silence of a silent library. We are most certainly NOT all the same which is how Nicholas Carr sees us from the outset.

As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Carr writes, (Carr, 2008)

In the right place, the mind is very capable of doing this, just as we can learn to play the organ or conduct an orchestra, that doesn’t mean we don’t also want the clarity of a movie screen or portrait in a gallery.

Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.

No. The technology permits a better way of doing things, playing to the way the mind is … not what we can turn it into.

Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.

Nicholas Carr has now fallen into the trap of using a metaphor of choice, the cliché idea that our minds are somehow either like microchips or the 100 billion neurones that have the options of being connected in multi-billions of shifting ways.

There are plenty of positive futures of a world brain, from H G Wells to Vannevar Bush

That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy, Carr concludes (2008) as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

REVIEW OF THE SHALLOWS FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES (Lehrer, J (2010))

Carr extends these anecdotal observations by linking them to the plasticity of the brain, which is constantly being shaped by experience. While plasticity is generally seen as a positive feature — it keeps the cortex supple — Carr is interested in its dark side. He argues that our mental malleability has turned us into servants of technology, our circuits reprogrammed by our gadgets. (Lehrer 2010)

There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind.

Carr’s argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” (Lehrer 2010)

LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS (2011)

This is a seductive model, but the empirical support for Carr’s conclusion is both slim and equivocal. To begin with, there is evidence that web surfing can increase the capacity of working memory. And while some studies have indeed shown that ‘hypertexts’ impede retention – in a 2001 Canadian study, for instance, people who read a version of Elizabeth Bowen’s story ‘The Demon Lover’ festooned with clickable links took longer and reported more confusion about the plot than did those who read it in an old-fashioned ‘linear’ text – others have failed to substantiate this claim. No study has shown that internet use degrades the ability to learn from a book, though that doesn’t stop people feeling that this is so – one medical blogger quoted by Carr laments, ‘I can’t read War and Peace any more.’

Hoyt: Plugging In Productively (2012)

Although I have at times experienced the “shallowness” that Carr describes, his views and the sweeping categorization of the Internet as a source of distraction are a simplistic reduction of a larger, more complicated problem. It’s easy to label technology as the danger because extreme assessments are easier to adhere to than calls for using technology in moderation.

I’m not certain how to go about regaining this control and moving myself from my current mode of passive over consumption, but I think more intentional and purposeful use of the Internet will help me reduce the sense of information saturation I’ve been feeling lately.

REFERENCE

Carr, N (2008) Is Google Making Us Stupid?. The Atlantic. (Accessed 11 February 2013 http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ )

Carr, N (2008) The Shallows.

Douglas, K 2007, ‘Review: Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf’, New Scientist, 195, 2623, p. 52, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 8 February 2013.

Holt, J (2011)  Smarter, Happier, More Productive (Accessed 11 Feb 2013 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n05/jim-holt/smarter-happier-more-productive )

Hoyt, H (2012) Plugging into productivity. Contributing Columnist. The Dartmouth. (October 16, 2012) (Accessed 11 Feb 2013 http://thedartmouth.com/2012/10/16/opinion/hoyt )

Lehrer, J (2010) Our Cluttered Minds. The New York Times Book Review
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Lehrer-t.html?_r=1&

Tucker, I (2011) Guardian Book Reviews (Accessed 11 Feb 2013 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jul/03/shallows-nicholas-carr-internet-neurology )

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