Everyone's buzzing about Nicholas Carr's new essay in The Atlantic, in which he worries that Google, and the Internet's hyperlink search architecture, is doing more than reconditioning how we absorb and organize information; it could actually reorganize our synapses, rendering us neurologically ill-equipped to read and comprehend books or long, contemplative works of any sort. As with most epistemological speculation, Carr offers us tantalizing anecdotes in lieu of quantitative evidence. He starts with his own suspicion that his brain is changing to accommodate the scattershot, link-heavy method by which we glean information from the Internet. "What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation," he writes. "My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles." Then it's on to Marshall McLuhan, Tufts psych professor Maryanne Wolf ("We are not only what we read. We are how we read."), Nietzsche, Lewis Mumford and how the mechanical clock divorced time from the rhythms of our workday, and the Industrial Revolution.
Finally, he lands with a thump before the feet of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, pulling a few utopian quotes from them in order to suggest they're out to literally supplement or replace our neurological pathways. "It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized." Carr writes. "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 The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive."
That's more than a little purple, but Carr's larger point about the plasticity of human comprehension is well-taken, and quite a few thinkers have worried about how we, well, think in our new era. Since we're usually more concerned about the A's pitching (now, that's takes some comprehension!), we'll let the blogosphere do our commenting for us:
To wit, search cheerleader extraordinaire John Battelle. "Somehow Carr seems to presume that there's simply nothing valuable occurring in our minds when we engage with the extraordinary new medium of the web," he writes. "when I am deep in search for knowledge on the web, jumping from link to link, reading deeply in one moment, skimming hundreds of links the next, when I am pulling back to formulate and reformulate queries and devouring new connections as quickly as Google and the Web can serve them up, when I am performing bricolage in real time over the course of hours, I am 'feeling' my brain light up."
On the other hand, CNet's Matt Asay was left unsettled. "As Carr points out, I, too, have difficulty reading when my computer beckons with instant gratification," he writes. "I need to exercise my brain to think again, and not merely process."
Ben Worthen at the Wall Street Journal adds, "The Internet is changing the way we think. These days, remembering a particular fact isn’t as important as knowing how to find that fact – just like knowing that 20% of 100 equals 20 isn’t as important as knowing how to figure out a percentage. The mountains of information on the Web — and companies like Google that have made it possible to find this information quickly — has essentially allowed us to outsource parts of our memory to the Internet.
"Over time, this will change the skills that businesses look for in new hires. All of a sudden the guy who remembers every fact about a topic may not be as valuable as the guy who knows how to find all of these facts and many others."
Finally, have a glance, or even a long, contemplative, meaningful genuflection, at the responses to Carr's article at his blog, Rough Type.