I’m re-reading Nicholas Carr’s famous Atlantic article from 2008 titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I’m 10 paragraphs in and I’ve now stopped 4 times, twice to check email, once to tweet about how I keep stopping and now, to start writing this blog post.
So it seems, off the cuff, that the answer to Carr’s question must be, “Yes, yes, immediate access to information, tools and other people through today’s electronic media is, in fact, making us stupid.” I haven’t even read far enough into it to say that I am confident I remember Carr’s central premise — I first read the article when he wrote it 3 years ago.
OK, I’ve re-read the whole thing, and I’m still arguing with Carr.
Carr leans heavily on anecdote here, as he has to — there’s still precious little research about the long-term effects on humans of being “wired” vs. not being so. Additionally, part of Carr’s point is that the move toward using artificial intelligence and relying on it in the ways we now do is systematizing our thought processes, or at least, our intellectual work in ways that are unnatural for humans.
Yet early in the article, Carr notes that reading isn’t intuitive for humans, either. While writing [and thus reading] was developed about 5000 years ago, human society is far older. Each human learns anew how to read — no one is born with that ability.
But I think the part that bothers Carr is the reduction in narrative. It is a human quality to make meaning of our world, to create a story where one did not exist. And deep concentration and deep reading greatly assist us in developing narrative. But developing the skills needed to sort, evaluate and synthesize the vast amounts of information available to people in modern society is also valuable.
I view many of the ways I use information, systems and technology today to aid me in clearing my brain for this deeper kind of thought. The more I can create routines and mechanize my information management, the less brainpower I have to devote to that — and the more I can devote to what I find truly valuable: pattern identification.
Finding the connections between ideas and information makes the original information all the more valuable. Pattern recognition is an essential skill in creating a narrative and telling a story — and in receiving a narrative or a story from others.