Monday, March 08, 2010

Nicholas Carr: Is Google Making Us Stupid & Pew Research

In 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote a very provocative article in the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Is Google Making Us Stupid?. While he loves the wonderful access the Internet gives him as a writer to all kinds of information, Carr has noticed that it seems to have changed how he reads the materials he gets online:

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. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
That is the basic premise of the article. That the huge sea of information that is the Internet seems to somehow subvert HOW we read, from deep, meditative reading to a kind of skimming. And Carr does not just rely on his own and others' anecdotal evidence. He presents some impressive experimental data.
And we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition. 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. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. The authors of the study report:

"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."

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. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf 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. 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.
Carr goes on to talk about how the malleable human brain is shaped by the tools we use. The Internet is reshaping the brain, and we should be aware of it. He also recognizes that the Google folks assume that we will all be better off with our brains augmented with the power of the Internet. He is also quite aware that each new technology brought its doomsayers, from writing, to the printing press, and that the world did not actually end. Carr is balanced in his commentary. He recognizes that we should be skeptical of his skepticism. But it's definitely worth considering this warning.

So I am quite intrigued that Pew Research has responded, two years later, with a survey, Does Google Make Us Stupid? It's worth noting that the folks who took the survey consist of: "...371 longtime experts who have regularly participated in these surveys. The second column covers the answers of all the respondents, including the 524 who were recruited by other experts or by their association with the Pew Internet Project."
"Future of the Internet" survey, conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center, were asked to consider the future of the internet-connected world between now and 2020 and the likely innovation that will occur. The survey required them to assess 10 different "tension pairs" - each pair offering two different 2020 scenarios with the same overall theme and opposite outcomes - and to select the one most likely choice of two statements. Although a wide range of opinion from experts, organizations, and interested institutions was sought, this survey, fielded from Dec. 2, 2009 to Jan. 11, 2010, should not be taken as a representative canvassing of internet experts. By design, the survey was an "opt in," self-selecting effort.
Not surprisingly, especially when you see in the comments section how many of the responders are leaders at Institute for the Future, or Linden Labs, or other major Internet-related organizations, the experts and even their recruited non-experts largely disagreed with Carr's assessment. There is a long list of comments which follow the brief summary of the results. This is actually the most interesting part of the survey, to me. I recommend both the original Carr essay, which has aged well, in my opinion, and the new Pew Research Survey, to your notice. Time will tell where the real concern should be, but we should certainly be aware of the possibility that the Internet is changing the way, not only that we access information, but that we handle it with our minds.

The logo decorating this post is from the Pew Research website. Tip of the OOTJ hat to Roy Balleste, who passed along the Pew Research survey!

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