Google isn’t making us dumb, but ‘smart’ is changing

by Andy Polaine on June 17, 2008

in General

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It started with Asi’s comments on Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? article. Forty-five minutes later I had Googled through laterally-related sites, read several blog posts – one or two both considered and longlistened to a lecture and found a book I hadn’t known about but will probably read.

Has any of that made me dumber? No. Does it conform to what we have been taught to consider smart? Probably not. And there’s the problem. Carr is looking through the telescope from the wrong end. It’s not that Google is making us dumb, it’s just that what we used to think of as ‘smart’ probably wasn’t that smart after all.

The main thrust of Carr’s piece is that the web encourages us to skim and is re-wiring our brains so much that we’re unable to read and concentrate deeply anymore. Moreover, this fuelled by Google’s desire to earn click revenue from this kind of behaviour – this was the conspiracy theory aspect that Asi felt was a step too far, whilst he identified with the skimming behaviour.

Carr draws upon the work of developmental psychologist, Maryanne Wolf, to explain that, “Reading is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is.” Except that speech probably isn’t etched into our genes in that way. According to Steven Pinker and others, the form of language arises from the way with conceive of and perceive the world, not the other way around as Linguistic Determinism would have us believe.

Carr quotes a study from University College London that examined how users use a database of journal articles, e-books and other written material:

“Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.”

(Carr doesn’t provide a reference, by the way, but you can find a PDF of the report from the British Library and download the full study from UCL).

Underlying all of this is the notion that deep reading of long passages is inherently ‘smarter’ reading than skimming, browsing, clicking and hopping. This goes hand in hand with the idea that retaining information makes us smart. It’s no wonder – the way we are educated places great emphasis on the ability to regurgitate information in exams, but that, as many educators know, tends to encourage surface as opposed to deep learning.

Very crudely, surface learning is about learning facts and ideas uncritically and deep learning is about tying ideas and concepts together and making links between them. Which one of those sounds more like reading online? (In case it’s not obvious to you ‘dumb’ people out there – I’m suggesting it’s the latter.)

As Asi points out, del.icio.us is a kind of repository of stuff that I may never go and read again, as is the “To Read” folder permanently on my desktop. But these are like über notes – rather than my scrawled lines, I have a link to the original material, some of which makes it into my own personal databases.

As is often the case with notes, I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now. The act of saving the article or posting it to del.icio.us helps me remember that it exists at all. Not only that, but it helps me find other links to material I never knew about, which is largely Steven Johnson’s point about serendipitous learning (the ultimate in serendipity has to be StumbleUpon).

Bear in mind that the study Carr quotes was in partnership with the British Library and that studies often ‘find’ what you are looking for in the first place. This part of the report that looks at the truth in the ‘Google Generation’ myths stuck out for me:

They prefer quick information in the form of easily digested chunks, rather than full text

Our verdict: This is a myth. CIBER deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, `?icking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.

Hang on. It’s quite a leap to say that ‘power browsing’ means society is dumbing down. Do they really mean that all those students, postgraduates and professors are dumber? It’s not easy to get a professorship or a postgraduate degree (which tend to be the most research intensive). My experience and impression is that it is often much harder than it used to be.

Could it not be that the ‘older researchers’ research differently because that’s simply what they are used to? Or maybe they haven’t ‘smarted up’ yet. The study notes this ‘pre-digital’ memory as being a factor in the different styles.

I think people use Google not just because it’s easier, but it fits the way with think better than most research library databases, which tend to have dreadful interfaces and force researchers to think like a database programmer, not like a person.

The ‘smart’ that the study defines is really about knowing the foibles of these systems; it’s got little to do with actual learning. The study notes this: “young people do not ?nd library-sponsored resources intuitive and therefore prefer to use Google or Yahoo instead”.

The problem isn’t the dumbness of the searchers, it’s the dumbness of the interface. Academic databases are really quite rigid and linear as research tools and they don’t encourage much in the way of joined-up, linked and network thinking.

Knowing how to apply and connect knowledge and information is a much more important (and future-proof) skill than simply knowing the information, but most educational institutions are used to being guardians of knowledge and information, which is why they’re panicking. What we used to think of as smart may not be anymore (and it’s probably why hot-housing your kids doesn’t work).

Ironically, given Carr’s reading of Google through the lens of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s industrial efficiency, it is precisely this Industrial Revolution style of thinking that we’re moving away from. Pat Kane argues the point in The Play Ethic:

“[F]or the culture of industrialism, in which an individual’s submission to routine is what is most valued, a network society is something of a disaster. The industrial mindset is too brittle to cope with the way that networks operate.”

What we are seeing in the transformation of media, advertising and marketing, learning and teaching, and culture in general is that the way we used to measure the value of any of those things no longer works the way it used to. It’s not that those things suddenly have less value or are dumbed down, but that we’re not measuring them fairly or correctly. (For a brilliant treatise on this, see Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You.)

Reading a book is a different experience than surfing the web, but you’re in dangerous and murky Andrew Keen territory to make the qualitative judgements Carr comes up with, as Asi notes. Reading a long, linear book is no guarantee that it’s automatically a deeper, more learned experience. (Have these people ever read John Grisham?).

So, I’ve just spent nearly two hours putting together this post – reading lots of material and becoming aware of a great deal more that I’ll look up when I need it, just as Einstein did. I’m reasonably sure he wasn’t that dumb. Am I?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Asi June 17, 2008 at 1:31 pm

Top post my friend! absolutely fantastic. thanks for taking this further. it’s a fascinating subject and my thoughts are too long and unstructured to properly comment now but will gather my thoughts and continue this joyful blogversation

best

A.

2 Matt D June 17, 2008 at 3:09 pm

Ironically, I nearly skipped over this in my rss feeds because it seemed long and its late. Glad I didn’t, top read.

3 Andy Polaine June 17, 2008 at 3:46 pm

Ha ha – I wondered if it might seem too long to stomach on the blogoweb or the old rss-o-feed. Interesting to see who bothers and who doesn’t. I also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make the first two paragraphs enticing enough for you skimmers to read further. Every blog post faces a first-page-of-a-book test. I suspect mine mostly fail.

4 tim June 23, 2008 at 4:46 pm

am i dumber because of your post? surely not and thanks for encouraging me to delicious even more (even though i do go back from time to time when i try to refer to something i saw on the web ages ago). the only slightly drastic passage i found to be “force researchers to think like a database programmer, not like a person.”
i am sure even they are people too.

5 Andy Polaine June 24, 2008 at 8:37 am

You mean they’re not robots? Seriously, though, that does read badly, I agree. It should really read “think like a database”, but that sounded weird.

6 Hils February 19, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Emm, they are forced to think like database programmers…. I don’t see the problem. After all programmers are people. Sorry but machines are not doing that themselves yet. Hopefully never will.

7 Andy Polaine February 24, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Hils – if you don’t see the problem, that’s a problem. The point isn’t that database programmers aren’t people, but that they are a very small minority of people. I know it reads odd (see the above comments).

Most people don’t think like database programmers – the underlying structure of databases is a mystery to most people and it’s even a mystery to some programmers. People seeking information seek it in ways that make sense to their knowledge of the subject, not the way someone has decided to organise it.

Amusingly, your comment ended up spam trapped because you got the reCaptcha wrong, proving that you are, indeed, a robot! Ha!

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