Monday, June 23. 2008
Nicholas Carr wrote a piece in the new issue of The Atlantic called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" I had read a blog that mentioned it and so I walked right outside my office to the library periodicals. No issue available. Of course, a quick Google search brought up the online version of the article. That sets the tone for this post.
Carr admits that he is haunted by the scene at the end of Kubrick's film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey when the supercomputer HAL talks with astronaut Dave who is disconnecting the memory that is HAL's brain. "Dave, my mind is going," HAL says, "I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm afraid."
Carr says he can feel it too. Like the astronauts who move robotically through their tasks on that ship "as if they're following the steps of an algorithm," he believes that Kubrick's theme (Let's give Clarke some credit too - they share screenplay credit and Arthur C. Clarke's book version explained a lot of the questions left after the film ended) is coming true: "As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence."
Why blame Google? Nicholas Carr is the author most recently of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, and blogs at Roughtype.com. He starts by explaining the symptoms.
Over the past few years I have had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind is not "going," so far as I can tell, but it is changing. I am 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.
And what is his explanation for this problem?
I definitely don't agree with him that the "human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive." Still, I'm Googling for information on Carr and finding lots of others talking about this, and I do agree with parts of the argument. (I think I need to read his book to get the bigger take on this.) One opinion that I enjoyed reading was on the BBC News site. There, Bill Thompson jumps off from Carr's premise and takes a nice turn towards learning theory.
To get even more meta about all this, I then found (this is one advantage to being a slow blogger - I let ideas stew and by the time I get to them, there are so many other ideas to use) that Carr had also read the Thompson post and then commented:
Accommodation and exploitation: good. Accommodation and exploration: bad. Okay, not that easy. Educators (at least those in K-12 or those who have had some educational theory) would be quick to connect to Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives in the cognitive domain. Running up that pyramid (or stairs, or hallway) from knowledge and comprehension to analysis and synthesis we all figure out after awhile that you can't have one without the other. Try asking students for analysis or synthesis on a topic they have no knowledge or comprehension of already.
But is the Net, represented in Nicholas Carr's argument by Google, actually changing the way our brain works? Is the process of getting information - that exploration - making it more likely that we will only assimilate that information into our existing frameworks?
If it is - and the jury hasn't even been selected on this decision - then what can educators do to help students exploit, evaluate and accommodate information for new purposes?
Back to Carr's article:
I think his idea is actually one that has been around for quite some time. In earlier forms, it wasn't the Internet. It might have been television, or comic books, or movies. McLuhan was looking at all that and even he wasn't the first. Ultimately, what might be most important is that we ARE looking at these things and thinking about them.
I can still recall how cool I thought it was when I discovered that HAL the computer was called that because Clarke used the letters that came before I-B-M in the alphabet. IBM was the big brain in computing back then. How things change. We shouldn't be afraid of becoming like HAL. We need to worry about becoming automatons that can't disconnect the computer chips when necessary.
In fact, I think I'll stop typing and get some sleep. Tomorrow, I'll look for the print copy of that book.
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The book 2001 was actually written after the movie and was based on the movie's screenplay, which was written by Kubrick and Clarke.
You are correct. Clarke did write a short story (The Sentinel) that I believe was the original inspiration. Film fan & Kubrick fan that I am, I rank Clarke higher and my prejudice shows. I'll amend the post accordingly.
I thought it was interesting that Carr also posted this self-observation on his article:
"In reading some of the comments posted online about my Atlantic piece, I kept coming across references to the article being "four pages long." At first I wondered, "Can't these people count? The article is six pages long!" (OK, five pages if you exclude the illustration and titling.) Then I realized - duh! - that people were referring to the online version of the article, which indeed is divided into four "pages."
Nice post. I've been meaning to read that article but haven't gotten around to it yet.
I do wonder what impact instant search will have long term, but I find that I can afford to be curious about stuff because I know I can instantly find the answers. As I watch TV, I can pick up my computer and instantly look for background information, or anything else that interests me. This seems like a good thing!
I also wonder if some of this connects back to education, we seem to be very eager for new explanations of why all children don't learn in school, and the latest is "their brains are different these days." Seems like an excuse to me.
It also seems like the industrial revolution, there were all sorts of theories that the mind was like a machine, with cogs and levers. Our explanations of how our minds work are always colored by the ways we understand the world outside our heads.
By the way, love your blog, it's coming up higher and higher on my list of "must reads". Always thoughtful.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment & kind words.
I agree that we tend to see the brain/mind as we see the world - these days the brain is a computer. Still, I'm not sure my adaptive unconscious reacts much differently than that of someone wandering the planet 3000 years ago. See charging animal, back up; see charging SUV, back up.
Google isn't making me stupid. It may be making me somewhat lazier, but it leads me to much new knowledge and much quicker.
BTW, readers should also check out your Generation YES blog and the main site at http://genyes.com/ I think your 2.0 plans sound very exciting.
Sometimes I feel like Google makes me stupid! But nowadays is the better way to get get information anywhere with a computer. It helps me a lot!
Muito bom o artigo. ParabÃ©ns.
SÃ£o Paulo - Brazil.
Very interesting post. And even more interesting and thought provoking was your comment about exploration vs. exploitation and how the age we live in (info age) is definitely more about exploration. Seems we're always going after something new and yet don't fully digest everything. It's like fast food, quick in and quick out. We need more time to let it all stew and actually do something with the info...
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