Is Google making us stupid?

No matter how busy I am, I always find time to read.  Fiction, non-fiction, magazines, books, and journals – I love them all!  Recently, I finished reading The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, the former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. What a fascinating book!  Read on for more details.

Grade: A+

In a few words: thought-provoking, interesting, extremely well-written

From the cover:

“’Is Google making us stupid?’ When Nicholas Carr posed that question, in a celebrated Atlantic cover story, he tapped into a well of anxiety about how the Internet is changing us.  He also crystallized one of the most important debates of our time:  As we enjoy the Net’s bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?”

My thoughts:

Early in The Shallows, Carr writes, “It seemed ludicrous to think that fiddling with a computer, a mere tool, could alter in any deep or lasting way what was going on inside my head.  But I was wrong.  As neuroscientists have discovered, the brain—and the mind to which it gives rise—is forever a work in progress.”

He goes on to describe four loose categories of tools that humans use to expand our power and control over our circumstances.  The fourth of these—and the primary focus of this book—is tools that extend or support our mental powers.  These are “intellectual technologies,” like the typewriter, abacus, globe, book, and Internet.  In Carr’s view, each embodies a set of assumptions about how the mind works or should work: How did people find their way before maps existed?  How did people tell time before the 24-hour clock was invented?  Was storytelling different before the invention of the typewriter?

Throughout The Shallows, Carr gives compelling and powerful evidence of how our minds are changed by the intellectual technologies we use.  Examples are everywhere, but I was particularly struck by his description of how humans are easily “fooled” by artificial intelligence computer applications in large part because we want to be fooled by them.  As he put it, “The Turing test, it turned out, was as much a test of the way human beings think as of the way machines think.”

Of particular importance to this book is Carr’s observation that “The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.  Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.”  As alarmist as this sounds, a New York Times book review said this about The Shallows:  “This is a measured manifesto. Even as Carr bemoans his vanishing attention span, he’s careful to note the usefulness of the Internet, which provides us with access to a near infinitude of information. We might be consigned to the intellectual shallows, but these shallows are as wide as a vast ocean.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment.  I read this book as more of a caution about maintaining technology’s role as a tool for humans, not a substitute for humanity.  My suspicion – and perhaps it’s too optimistic (but let me keep my delusions, okay?) – is that the people who are the game-changers, earth-movers, and innovators in today’s world DO use the Internet as a tool.  These people haven’t lost their ability to reason, create, and achieve in the physical world just because they have a constant stream of information accessible 24/7.

For me, there’s a critical distinction between the “brain” and the “mind,” and I have some measure of faith in the triumph of the thoughtful, intelligent, complicated, amazing human mind.  Though our paradigm for understanding the brain has been rooted for years in the machine-mind analogy, that comparison is now being rejected as inadequate.  Sure, there’s a ton of research about what parts of the brain are affected by using the Internet, comparisons of brain activity while reading in print versus online, etc., but I believe that these studies only offer a partial view of reality.

It’s often said that the human brain is more complex than the universe, and we know even less about it.  I suspect that until neuroscience is exponentially more sophisticated, we won’t see the total view of what the brain is (much less the mind) for generations, and maybe never.  And that is probably a good thing.

Conclusion/Applicability for Business

It would be easy to dismiss this book as an intellectual exercise with little applicability “in the trenches” of running a business.  But I believe the philosophical questions Carr raises have potentially critical implications for business owners, marketers, and salespeople, among others.  Why?  I see in my work that the Internet is a constant information hog.  I often joke about how many articles, blogs, and other “copy” I’ve written for clients that is NEVER read by any human – just search engines.  There’s a fundamental question of how much to play along with this demand.  Hypothetically, is it possible to run a business – and a very successful one – without this reliance on technology?  When is technology a true tool, and when is it distracting from the real world problems and solutions?

Carr writes, “When a carpenter picks up a hammer, the hammer becomes, so far as his brain is concerned, part of his hand….Our ability to meld with all manner of tools is one of the qualities that most distinguishes us as a species.” True enough, but I have difficulty with his conclusion that “When the carpenter takes his hammer into his hand, he can use that hand to do only what a hammer can do.  The hand becomes an implement for pounding and pulling nails.”  Sure, we can hammer with a hammer.  But I’ve seen a hammer used as a crowbar, a paperweight, a counterweight, and a symbol representing the working class.

I believe the answer the question, “Is Google making us stupid?” is probably, “No.”  We’re making ourselves stupid if we don’t stay in touch with what makes us human.  We must keep technologies where they belong:  in our toolkit, to be called on when needed.  Just because I have a hammer doesn’t mean I have to bang something with it.  I can use it to make a point, too.

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