Google: key to wisdom or trapdoor to idiocy?

Nicholas Carr lays out the case for the idea that Google makes us dumb here. (Thanks TBL.)

By coincidence, the same day I read that, I ended up using Google Reader for the first time. Before, I’d always thought Google Reader was a bit of a cheat. The Internet already delivers everything to us in one spot, and now in one smaller spot, Google delivers the Internet we want to see to us. It just seemed a bit lazy. Isn’t that what bookmarks are for?

Now that I have to become a sudden expert on the Dallas Cowboys, I set up a Google Reader with all sorts of RSS feeds piping Cowboys news straight to me. It will make me more knowledgeable about the Cowboys, but can it make me any smarter? Or might it do the exact opposite?

I think that’s up to me. In his article, Carr never offers suggestions for how to effectively use Google to grow your knowledge base without letting it rewire your brain and turn you into a power-scanning, convenient fact-finding shallow reader. Luckily, I’m an expert on being smart.

Here’s the trick.

Don’t let Google program you. Program yourself.

Carr writes that he and his literary-minded friends suddenly struggle to get through books and are reading less and less. One remarked that he can’t read War and Peace anymore. They all seem to be letting Google reprogam them. Me, I’m making myself read. There are distractions and other things I could be doing, but if I start a book I aim to finish it, and I usually do. Once I finish the book, I start a new one immediately. I also keep a secondary book in my car so I can have something to read when I find myself away from home with nothing better to do.

It’s not just about books though. Carr’s missive on the effects of Googleization runs some 4,000 words long. I wonder how many readers got through the first 500 words, thought ‘wow, he might be on to something here’ and clicked away to check their email or follow some link. I would guess… thousands. Most of them probably didn’t even realize the irony of their actions. At one point, I almost said to myself, ‘yeah self, I’ve got the gist of this. Pretty interesting,’ and continued my browsing. But then I said to myself, ‘self, are you really going to do that and prove his point?’ So I read the whole thing.

The point is, how you use the Internet and Google, and how you read on the the Internet is up to you. Google makes it convenient to skim, and you’d better belive I skim away when I’m on a specific fact-finding mission, but it also provides all the information one could possibly want. And there’s nothing inherently damaging about that.

Carr reminds us that:

Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.”

The same could easily be said for the Internet, if one wanted to wax elitist.

The only difference is that it’s even easier than before to obtain facts that you can trumpet as knowledge. But despite the perils that writing presented, great minds have continued to flourish. Natural born deep thinkers won’t be seduced by the appeal of inch-deep, mile-wide knowledge. But they’ll be able to bolster their deep knowledge with a wide range of loosely related facts at the click of a mouse. And so an expert on one topic might read on any number of other topics, stumble across something that somehow, oddly relates and launch a unique cross-disciplinary study. There’s no reason to belive that Google will weaken strong minds. It just puts more information at their disposal.

It might present trouble for someone like me. I’m not cut from the same cloth as your average PhD, more like your average sports fan. But I’m at least smart enough to come up with a plan to forestall its potential negative effects. And I think I’m disciplined enough to maintain my affinity for lengthy reading. It’s a choice, and the correct choice is to keep reading.

So read Carr’s article and be alarmed, but at least I’ve given you hope haven’t I? Haven’t I?

Where’d you go?

Damn it.

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Published in: on July 9, 2008 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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