"Is Google Making Us Stupid?"
July 07, 2008
This article has received plenty of Web-buzz, and I should have commented on it already, but . . .
Its thesis is as follows:
The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing 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 the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
The thesis is supported by a handful of anecdotes--it used to be easy for him to immerse himself in a book or lengthy article, now it's not--one academic study, and some airy theorizing.
The culprit, as the title indicates, is the Net generally, and Google specifically.
Fortunately for the author, we here at the Door's Center for Study of Half-Baked Highbrow Theories for Why Life Stinks Now have examined his story, and we are pleased to offer two alternate hypotheses (below the fold).
1. The author is simply getting older. I mean this in two ways: A) there can be, at least for some people, a gradual decline in focus and powers of concentration with age, simply because certain key hormone levels decrease and because of other physical factors (less sleep, say, or less good sleep), and B) accumulated experience makes some things that once were fascinating, or at least interesting, less so. This is sometimes referred to as College Sophomore BS Syndrome: a lot of people report that as sophomores in college, they spent hours upon hours discussing What It All Means with friends and acquaintances, but by at least age 40 or so, they've completely stopped. Another example: when I was much younger I could watch a standard two-hour Hollywood rom-com with only mild complaint. These days, seven minutes in, after the unbelievable premise is presented and the direction of the hackneyed storyline is crystal clear, I tend to give up.
2. Even more fundamentally, there's an economic explanation, an explanation that I give as the answer to the following test question (a question my students do surprisingly well on):
Why, with all the time-saving devices we have today--washing machines, microwave ovens, word processors--do so many people feel busier than ever before?
Answer: we're, as a whole country, rich. (As compared to Americans even just three or four generations ago.) Rich people generally have lots of attractive things to do with their time. In economics, we say that time spent doing a particular thing has a high opportunity cost. So we are more impatient not just in reading, but in most phases of our life. A comedian, I forget who, has a bit about how he or she will drum his fingers waiting for the microwave to finish: "C'mon, I don't have all . . . minute!"
A possible test--if Atlantic is willing to throw a couple of million dollars at me, I'm available: if a group of upper-middle-income people the author's age but who for some reason don't have access to the Net or Google can be located, I predict that they'd perceive the same relative decline in attention-span and focus.
(I note a third hypothesis, also related to economics. Since information has become more important and more valuable, some authors have gotten much better at producing it. High quality information lowers patience with the lower quality forms. Once you've read a really well-written microeconomics textbook, say, it's much harder to wade through a poorly-written one, or a poorly written text on any subject.)