Tag Archives: nicholas carr

Google and the Human Brain

12 Jun

One day, my eight-year-old asks me, “Daddy, who invented the swing set?” I immediately answered that much like Samuel Morse invented Morse code and Thomas Crapper invented the toilet, the swing set was invented by Alexander Swing back in the late 1700s. He didn’t buy this (or the suggestion that it might have been Esmerelda Set) for more than a couple seconds, so I said what I usually say in these situations: “OK, let’s ask the Internet!” Which means to Google it.

The cover of the July/August Atlantic magazine reads, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” It’s a thought I’ve often had as I find us using Google — and the Internet as a whole — like Dumbledore’s Pensieve to hold information outside of ourselves that otherwise would overflow our ability to contain them.

Carr makes a compelling point about how technology structures the way we think:

…what the Net seems to be doing is 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 a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski...

It’s as if the more we can find out through a simple search, the less we need to know, the less we’re required to discover something unknown, the less need we feel to create something new. It’s true when you’re a part of a network as well — back when I was at the Big Agency, we talked so much of experience from anywhere in the network, we sometimes neglected to train and empower teams to be experts.

Carr says that like mechanical clocks and every other major communications technology, our minds are adapting to the Net. In the process, some things are gained, and some are lost.

In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

But maybe the competition will do us good. Facts are a commodity — junk food for the brain. Thinking, inferring, and imagining are what propels us, and gives each of us something distinct to contribute to our worlds. Carr says that this is where deep reading benefits the brain.

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire … but for the intellectual vibrations those set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation…we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.

So, I’ll tell my kids to Google the facts, and to keep reading, and even see if they can discover something new. Because the Net doesn’t have all the answers.

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