I’d like to add my voice to the chorus of critical responses to Nick Carr’s piece in The Atlantic that asks the question Is Google Making Us Stupid. Blaise Alleyne, a member of Techdirt’s Insight Community, has already taken a crack at why the piece is so irritating, but I’d like to add my two cents. Blaise is quite right to note that one of the irritating things is that Nick blames Google for the pursuit of “skimming” information quickly, as though this is something that was invented by Larry and Sergey, or something that only became popular because of the Internet.
But why? Skimming information has probably been around for centuries; I’m willing to bet that plenty of monks skimmed through their religious texts too, and Egyptians through the papyrus for that matter. The study that Nick mentions also looked at how university students behaved while using a couple of research databases. So let me get this straight — students skim things when they’re researching topics? Wow. That’s a real bombshell there. And the news that people skim information on the Internet doesn’t seem all that earth-shattering either; after all, there’s about a billion times as much info out there (broadly speaking) as there was a decade ago. Of course people are skimming.
I’m not even going to go into the stuff about people “losing the ability” to read longer articles or books, which is ridiculous. I may not have time to read books, but I certainly haven’t lost the ability — and I’ve probably read more longer articles over the past few years than I did in the years before that, many of them online (including Nick’s). In a lot of ways, the article didn’t just make me irritated, it made me sad. Nick is a clearly a smart guy. But for whatever reason, he would rather use his skills to try and defend silly arguments that appear to be contrary just for the sake of being contrary. He’s like a troll that writes really well.
For what it’s worth, Jon Udell seems to agree with Nick that his brain is being rewired somehow, and wonders whether that is a good thing, and I have had conversations with friends who say they share Carr’s concerns, and have found themselves wondering if their attention span is getting shorter. I think the best approach is something like cross-training: some of this, and then some of that. Too much of any one thing, whether skimming or in-depth reading, is probably bad.