“I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” Nicholas Carr laments in his provocative essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (The Atlantic, July 2008). “I have this uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping my circuitry, reprogramming my memory.”
Book author Carr suggests his mind isn’t so much going as it is changing, due largely to the Internet chipping away at his “capacity for concentration and contemplation.” He confesses, “Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets, reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.”
Most of us, particularly writers like Carr, agree the Web is a godsend. (Except for when it’s a curse, that is.) We’re living in an age when, Carr notes, “Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine.” But this confused state of mind is nothing new, he explains.
Way back, Plato wrote how people feared the written word would become a substitute for the knowledge in their heads and that they would “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And by receiving this vast quantity of information without proper instruction, they would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.”
Just as remarkable, Carr cites, in the 15th century there was similar apprehension about the value of Guttenberg’s printing press. Critics then worried such easy access to cheaply printed books would promote “intellectual laziness … weakening of the minds … demean the work of scholars … and spread sedition and debauchery.”
ARE WE TOOL MAKERS OR SIMPLY TOOLS?
There’s definitely a pattern. It seems as though time is the truest test of the impact of the tools of communication and the ease with which information can be attained. So, once more, this time with the Web, the existential question arises: Will this resource expand the human mind by providing the brain an opportunity to adapt and redirect its capacity or, conversely, will it make us lazy … and stupid?
Pundit Bill Maher, for one, makes a case for mind over matter, and for the distinctly human qualities of curiosity, intuition and life experience: “Wisdom isn’t something you can just Google.”
There’s the very real possibility, because human evolution is so gradual, that our dumbing-down as a result of reliance on manufactured conveyances of information will be imperceptible. This is precisely why it’s so important that Carr’s rhetorical question along with his concentrated, contemplative perspective at least elevates the level of discussion on the subject.
The consideration here is as old as time. Do we accept immediate gratification (at the push of a button) and possibly jeopardize our future? Without constant scrutiny of the implications of shortcuts to thinking, our only perspective is in hindsight — using the memory and intelligence we may have already compromised.
Yet another issue for next generations to deal with? The Roman rhetorician Seneca said, “There will come a time when our descendents will be amazed that we did not know the things that are so plain to them.”