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Response to Nicholas Carr's 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?'

Criticism of the Web most often questions whether we are becoming more superficial and scattered in our thinking. In the July-August 2008 Atlantic magazine, Nicholas Carr published "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" ( Like other critics, he sees change as loss and not as gain. But, his own criticism is superficial and misses the humanizing impact of Web 2.0.

Nicholas Carr is an important voice today in pointing to the nervousness that many people have about technology. He recently published The Big Switch; Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, which is in its seventh printing. His blog is well worth reading regularly: His views are carefully constructed and researched. He is a skilled writer and is widely read. 

And, academics often express the same concerns Carr doesin his Atlantic article. Our concerns are about the qualitative differences in how net-gen students think and write and learn. Nicholas Carr is giving voice to these concerns. This article is about one skill that he believes is being eroded, that of reading:

"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."

He says this change is because of all the time he spends online. As a writer, he finds the Web a valuable tool, but he thinks it's having a bad effect on his concentration. He says "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." He refers to a 5-year study in the UK, which found that people visiting their sites "exhibited 'a form of skimming activity,' hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they'd already visited."

Carr admits that we, as a culture, read a lot more because of the Web, but laments that "our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged." And he highlights a quote from an essay by the playwright Richard Foreman:

"I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense, and 'cathedral-like' structure of the highly educated and articulate personality--a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) there placement of complex inner density with a new kind of self--evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the 'instantly available.'"

As an advocate for technology in higher education over the past 20 years, I've heard similar warnings for years. Indeed, some people reading this article may believe that Carr has hit the nail on the head. There is no question that our habits are changing: The Web has captured our attention and is now the default starting point for almost all work. The Web is different in almost all aspects from a book. Printed books have contained the essential truths of humanity for half a millennium. The Web is where we look for knowledge that usually exists not in final, authoritative, single-author text blocks but in the aggregate of wisdom from many sites.

Carr sees only one side of the change we are going through, the loss of book habits. But, for us over our thousands of years of learning, the book is the anomaly, not the Web. The book led us to think that one person could write a permanent compilation of truth. Books lived on over the years, separated from their authors, a single voice, implying that knowledge is a thing or a commodity, creating the legal fiction that one person "owned" the ideas in a book as though the author had grown up in isolation from all other humans and all the ideas had sprung, fully-formed, from his or her brain.

Books are heavy and expensive and take a long time to produce. Knowledge based in books, therefore, is slow to develop, hard to respond to, and is scarce. People responded to books with reviews, with articles, and with new books. Human gregariousness was therefore slowed to a snail's pace as conversation around a book was carried out in the lengthy print process. Books built our culture, don't get me wrong, and have provided wonderful wealth, but ultimately they also undervalued and ignored the natural ways that humans learn: through oral interaction and in a group.

It is easy to criticize a new technology; it is much harder to understand how the new technology can help create new abilities in humans. And even much harder to understand how technology can actually recapture and re-enable human abilities.

What Carr describes and is most worried about, how we"skim" and "bounce" around in our reading, is actually akind of new orality: We are reading as we speak when we are in a group. We "listen" to one statement, then another and another in quick succession: Our reading on the Web is like listening to a bunch of people talking. It's hybrid orality. We find ourselves once again the naturally gregarious humans we always were. We find ourselves creating knowledge continually and rapidly as our social contacts on the Web expand. We have re-discovered new ways to enjoy learning in a social setting.

No, Google is not making us stupid. What Google and the Web are doing is helping us re-claim our human legacy of learning through a rapid exchange of ideas in a social setting. Google is, indeed, making us smarter as we re-discover new ways to learn.

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