Google Makes Us Stupid

Last Updated Jun 13, 2008 10:00 PM EDT

So Nick Carr argues in the July/August issue of The Atlantic (update: here's the link to Is Google Making Us Stupid?). Think about this: how often do you search on Google (or any search engine) every day? How about the people you work with?

Some of the article comes directly from the last chapter of Carr's book "The Big Switch," [see my review here] but he extends it around one central argument: Google will eventually become something we interface to with our brains, and we will become dependent on it, and thus stupid. He has a nice line about how our intelligence will become artificial intelligence.

Carr is not a Luddite per se, but he joins a long line of techno-skeptics going all the way back to Socrates, who argued that people should not write things down, because it would impair their memories (Carr knows this, and mentioned Socrates in his essay).

What's most novel here is his argument about how technology changes us. He cites the development of the clock, which changed the rhythm of life. He writes: "In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock." He also relates a vignette about how using a typewriter changed the way Nietzsche wrote. And then he segues into the Internet, which "is becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewrite, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV."

It is, he says, "reprogramming us."

It is certainly changing the way we work -- we use e-mail to replace direct conversations, we mine data to learn things about our customers they themselves don't realize, and it appears to flatten organizations -- and render many of our jobs obsolete (Carr, in his book, notes that Skype has double the customers of British Telecom and about 99,800 fewer employees). It is unclear what will emerge from this digital maelstrom. But are we being reprogrammed, our brains shifting their circuits to honor how the Web works?

Maybe a little bit -- studies suggest that people who spend a lot of time online suffer from shorter attention spans. Still, I doubt that Google will make us idiots. In fact, there's a very good chance that Google won't outlive most of you reading this piece.

Robert Darnton, director of the University Library at Harvard, recently published an essay called The Library in the New Age. In it, he assesses whether Google's effort to scan as many of the world's books as possible into a database represents a threat to libraries. In part, he notes the obvious:

Companies decline rapidly in the fast-changing environment of electronic technology. Google may disappear or be eclipsed by an even greater technology, which could make its database as outdated and inaccessible as many of our old floppy disks and CD-ROMs. Electronic enterprises come and go. Research libraries last for centuries. Better to fortify them than to declare them obsolete, because obsolescence is built into the electronic media.

Darnton's odds of being right are at least as good as Carr's. Plus, Carr's argument, like many in the genre of science fiction, discounts important things (like how much of the world remains offline, and how unlikely it is that giant data centers will be all there is to our economy, which is the natural extension of some of his arguments).

What do you think? Has Google already made me stupid?

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.