We evolved in a world where our survival depended on an intimate knowledge of our surroundings. This is still true, but our surroundings have grown. We are now trying to comprehend the global village with minds that were designed to handle a patch of savanna and a close circle of friends. Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point. We know we are drowning, but we do what we can to stay afloat. W. Daniel Hillis

[The July/August issue of Atlantic Monthly features a cover story by Nicholas Carr: "Is Google Making Us Stupid: What The Internet is doing to Our Brains". Carr is author of the recently published The Big Switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google and a blogger: Rough Type. He is also an Edge contributor.

Danny Hillis disagrees with his argument. Here is Hillis's comment was an interesting Edge Reality Club discussion, cross-referenced with a discussion on the Encyclopedia Britannica website. —JB]

By Nicholas Carr

W. Daniel Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Larry Sanger, George Dyson, Jaron Lanier, Douglas Rushkoff, W. Daniel Hillis, David Brin

NEW DAVID BRIN: ...Indeed, Larry Sanger is right to see the present incarnation of the web as depressingly superficial, facile and often frivolous. If Clay Shirky revels in the blogosphere, can he point to anything that it actually accomplishes? Name a problem that all this "discourse" has decisively solved—in a world where problems proliferate and accumulate at record pace?

Let's make the challenge simpler—can Shirky even point to one stupidity that has been decisively disproved?...

Britannica Forum:

This Is Your Brain; This is Your Brain on the Internet

Clay Shirky, Nicholas Carr, Larry Sanger, Matthew Battles


July/August 2008

What the Internet is doing to our brains

By Nicholas Carr

...I think I know what's going on. For more than a decade now, I've been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I've got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I'm not working, I'm as likely as not to be foraging in the Web's info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they're sometimes likened, hyperlinks don't merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. 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.

I'm not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they're having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. ...



Nicholas Carr is correct in noticing that something is "Making us Stupid", but it is not Google. Think of Google as a life preserver, thrown to us in a rising flood. True, we use it to stay on the surface, but it is not for the sake of laziness. It is for survival.

The flood that is drowning us is, of course, the flood of information, a metaphor so trite that we have ceased to question it. If the metaphor was new we might ask, where exactly is this flood coming from? Is it a consequence of advances in communication technology? The power of media companies? Is it generated by our recently developed weakness for information snacks? All of these trends are real, but I believe they are not the cause. They are the symptoms of our predicament.

Fast communication, powerful media and superficial skimming are all creations of our insatiable demand for information. We don't just want more, we need more. While we complain about the overload, we sign up for faster internet service, in-pocket email, unlimited talk-time and premium cable. In the mist of the flood, we are turning on all the taps.

So why do we need so much information? Here is where we can blame technology, at least in part. Technology has destroyed the isolation of distance, so more of what happens matters to us. It is not just that the world has gotten more complicated (it has), but rather that more of the world has become relevant. Not only is world more connected (or, as Thomas Friedman would, say, flatter), but it is also bigger. There are more people, and more of them than ever have the resources to do something that matters to us. We need to know more because our world is bigger, flatter, and more complex.

Besides technology, we must also blame politics. We need to know more because we are expected to make more decisions. I can choose my own religion, my own communications carrier, and my own health care provider. As a resident of California, I vote my opinion on the generation of power, the definition of marriage and the treatment of farm animals. In the olden days, these kinds of things were decided by the King.

I do not mean to suggest that all the information we gather is for civic purposes. That I need to know more to do my job goes without saying, but I also need to know more just to have friends. I manage to get by without knowing exactly why Paris Hilton is famous, but I cannot fully participate in society without knowing that she is well known. Of course, my own social clan has its own Charlie Rose version of celebrities, complete with must-read books, must-understand ideas, and must-see films. I am expected to have an opinion about the latest piece in The Atlantic or the New Yorker. Actually, I need to learn more just to understand the cartoons.

We evolved in a world where our survival depended on an intimate knowledge of our surroundings. This is still true, but our surroundings have grown. We are now trying to comprehend the global village with minds that were designed to handle a patch of savanna and a close circle of friends. Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point. We know we are drowning, but we do what we can to stay afloat.

As an optimist, I assume that we will eventually invent our way out of our peril, perhaps by building new technologies that make us smarter, or by building new societies that better fit our limitations. In the meantime, we will have to struggle. Herman Melville, as might be expected, put it better: "well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril; nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown."

KEVIN KELLY [7.11.08]

Will We Let Google Make Us Smarter?

Is Google making us stupid? 

That's the tiltle of provocator Nick Carr's piece in this month's Atlantic. Carr is a self-admitted worrywart, who joins a long line of historical worrywarts worrying that new technologies are making us stupid. In fact Carr does such a fine job of rounding up great examples of ancient worrywarts getting it all wrong, it's hard to take his own worry seriously.

For instance as evidence that new technologies can make us stupid he offers this story about the German writer Nietzsche. Near the end of his life Nietzsche got so blind and old he could not write with a pen but learned to touch type (no sight needed) on a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter. (BTW, this  device is one of the coolest gizmos I've seen. Check out the video here. )



Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche's prose "changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style."

So was his change in style due to switching to a machine or was it because Nietzsche was ill and dying?

Likewise, is the ocean of short writing the web has generated due to our minds are getting dumber and incapable of paying attention to long articles, as Carr worries, or is it because we finally have a new vehicle and market place for loads of short things, whereas in the past it short was unprofitable to produce in such quantity? I doubt the former and suspect the latter is the better explanation.

Carr begins his piece describing how smarter he is while using Google. What if Carr is right? What if we were getting dumber when we are off Google, but we were getting loads smarter while we were on Google?  That doesn't seem improbable, and in fact seems pretty likely.

Question is, do you get off Google or stay on all the time?

I think that even if the penalty is that you lose 20 points of your natural IQ when you get off Google AI, most of us will choose to keep the 40 IQ points we gain by jacking in all the time.

At least I would.

[See "Will We Let Google Make Us Smarter?" on Kevin Kelly's Blog—The Technium]

LARRY SANGER [7.11.08]

Carr's essay is interesting, but his aim is off. On the one hand, he is probably right that many of us have a tendency to sample too much of everything from the Internet's information buffet—leading to epistemic indigestion. We ought to be reading more books—including more classics—or so I think. On the other hand, he is wrong to present the problem as a collective, techno-social one, beyond our individual control, a problem to be blamed on programmers, and treated mainly by social psychologists or technocrats rather than by the philosophers and humanists. Let me elaborate.

Carr identifies an important problem. He begins with the valid observation that many of us seem to be reading smaller and smaller snippets of text. Is it any wonder that Twitter is so popular? But ultimately, Carr implies—also correctly—the problem is the weakening of our ability to think things through for ourselves. Sadly, some even glorify and encourage this disturbing trend. Remember 2005's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking? Revolutionary times cry out for principled, systematic thought, for deep self-reflection. But, as Carr points out, the information revolution itself makes it too easy for us to shrink our attention even more than before and follow the crowd.

But ultimately we have no one to blame but ourselves for this. If some of us no longer seem to be able to read a book all the way through, it isn't because of Google or the vast quantity of information on the Internet. To say that is to buy into a sort of determinism that ultimately denies the very thing that makes us most human and arguably gives us our dignity: our ability to think things through, particularly in depth, in a way that can lead to our changing our minds in deep ways.

It is ridiculous to bemoan a state which is self-created; that is a sign of weakness of will, of indiscipline, not of victimhood. Carr actually blames it on "computer engineers and software coders" who build things like Google—which is silly. Indeed, to that extent, Carr profoundly misunderstands the nature of the problem: to pretend that you can blame others (programmers, no less!) for your unwillingness to think long and hard is only a sign of how the problem itself resides within you. It is ultimately a problem of will, a failure to choose to think. If that is a problem of yours, you have no one to blame for it but yourself.

GEORGE DYSON [7.11.08]

Nicholas Carr asks a question that all of us should be asking ourselves:

"What if the cost of machines that think is people who don't?"

It's a risk. "The ancestors of oysters and barnacles had heads. Snakes have lost their limbs and ostriches and penguins their power of flight. Man may just as easily lose his intelligence," warned J. B. S. Haldane in 1928.

We will certainly lose some treasured ways of thinking but the next generation will replace them with something new. The present generation has no childhood immunity to web-based stupidity but future generations will.

I am more worried by people growing up unable to tie a bowline, sharpen a hunting knife, or rebuild a carburetor than I am by people who don't read books. Perhaps books will end up back where they started, locked away in monasteries (or the depths of Google) and read by a select few.

We are here (on Edge) because people are still reading books. The iPod and the MP3 spelled the decline of the album and the rise of the playlist. But more people are listening to more music, and that is good.

JARON LANIER [7.14.08]

The thing that is making us stupid is pretending that technological change is an autonomous process that will proceed in its chosen direction independently of us.

It is certainly true that particular technologies can make you stupid. Casinos, dive bars, celebrity tabloids, crack cocaine…

And certainly there are digital technologies that don't bring out the best or brightest aspects of human nature. Anonymous comments are an example.

The one thought that does the most to make technology worse is the thought that there is only one axis of choice, and that axis runs from pro- to anti-.

Designers of digital experiences should rejoice when an articulate critic comes along, because that's a crucial step in making digital stuff better.


Back in 1995 I argued that we're looking at net-literate kids all wrong—that we were like fish bemoaning the fact that their children had evolved legs, walked on land, and in the process lost the ability to breathe underwater.

I'm not quite as optimistic as I was then, and largely because we have remained fairly ignorant of the biases of media as we move from one system to the other. It's less a matter of "is this a good thing or a bad thing"—or, in Carr's terminology, "smart or dumb" thing—than it is an issue of how conscious we are of each medium's strengths, and how consciously we move from one to another.

The problem with the Internet medium (or strength, as Malcolm Gladwell would argue) is how it pushes us towards "thin-slicing" or grazing information rather than digging in more deeply and considering it. Like a New Yorker piece that gives people the self-congratulatory and ultimately reassuring tidbits they need to discuss an issue at a cocktail party, the Web feeds in more bite-size doses.

The Web's strength, however, is in providing its text in more conversational and collaborative contexts. While print is biased towards the person (with a lot of time) sitting in his or her study and reading very much alone, the Web opens possibilities for more shared explorations. Like this one right here.

So the key, as I see it, is understanding the biases of the medium—as McLuhan would advise. We might learn to see our movement from one dominant medium to another less as a net gain or loss, but rather as a shift of landscape that can be exploited quite positively if we take the time and energy to honestly survey the characteristics and opportunities of the new terrain.

July 17, 2008

Britannica Forum:
This Is Your Brain; This is Your Brain on the Internet

Clay Shirky, Nicholas Carr, Larry Sanger, Matthew Battles

Why Abundance is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr
Clay Shirky

But the anxiety at the heart of "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" doesn't actually seem to be about thinking, or even reading, but culture. ...

... As Carr notes, "we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice." Well, yes. But because the return of reading has not brought about the return of the cultural icons we'd been emptily praising all these years, the enormity of the historical shift away from literary culture is now becoming clear.

And this, I think, is the real anxiety behind the essay: having lost its actual centrality some time ago, the literary world is now losing its normative hold on culture as well. The threat isn't that people will stop reading War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to the idea of reading War and Peace. [...MORE]

Why Skepticism is Good: My Reply to Clay Shirky
Nicholas Carr

It's telling that Shirky uses gauzily religious terms to describe the Internet—"our garden of ethereal delights"—as what he's expressing here is not reason but faith. I hope he's right, but I think that skepticism is always the proper response to techno-utopianism. [...MORE]

A Defense of Tolstoy & the Individual Thinker: A Reply to Clay Shirky
Larry Sanger

I've already responded in another forum to Nick Carr's essay, which I thought was very thought-provoking, if not entirely on target; I won't repeat here what I said there. But in it you can see that I would disagree almost perfectly with Clay Shirky, who I want to respond to separately here.

I want to respond to Clay Shirky. I've read War and Peace twice. It's one of my very favorite novels, and I love it—it's enormously interesting. In Clay's view, it seems, the new speed and deeply social nature of intellectual discourse means that, soon, the only relevant discourse will occur in blog- or Twitter-sized chunks. Is this the hip "upstart literature," proudly "diverse, contemporary, and vulgar," that is now "the new high culture"?

If so, God help us. [...MORE]

Yes, the Internet Will Change Us (But We Can Handle It)
Matthew Battles

Nick Carr's Atlantic essay has also prompted a discussion over at publisher John Brockman's blog The Edge. Brockman's authors include computer science visionaries, evolutionary biologists, and cognitive scientists, and Carr's concerns about the cognitive effects of the Internet are very much their cup of tea. [...MORE]


For those of you who have not been following the action on the Encyclopedia Britannica blog, here is the latest: Clay Shirky dissed Tolstoy and Nicholas Carr zinged back with a smackdown about Clay's "highbrow form of philistinism". Ouch.

Clay Shirky is not just questioning Tolstoy, he is questioning the culture of literature. He asks, What's so great about War and Peace? Maybe it does have themes of power, fate, and personal responsibility, but it is really any more enriching than, say, a season of The Wire? And Shirky is not alone in his blasphemy. Back on the Edge, George Dyson is speculates, "Perhaps books will end up back where they started, locked away in monasteries (or the depths of Google) and read by a select few". For a readership of bibliophiles, this is treason.

I will confess that I too am a booklover, and I write these words surrounded by the comfort of well-filled shelves. I love the smell of musty bindings, the texture of soft paper, and the crispness of a well-turned page. I like what books have to say and how they say it. My thoughts follow naturally in the patterns of literature, my mental stride falling in easily with its pace. Unlike Clay Shirky, I actually liked War and Peace.

Yet, as much as I love books, I understand that my bibliophilia is not a virtue, but an indulgence. I associate books with insight and knowledge, but my respect is for ideas, not format. Shirky is right to call out the cargo-cult of literature. For many years books were the primary means by which important ideas were conveyed to us, we came to associate them with thoughtful insight. This association is out of date. As much as I liked War and Peace, I probably got more out of the The Wire. And why should that be surprising? More human effort can be put into a television series than a novel and more time is spent consuming it. If both are executed to their highest standards, with equal care, skill and insight, we might well expect less from the book.

Even if literature is losing its primacy in storytelling, we might still hold out hope that the book as the best way to covey a complex idea. What if the format of a book is specially matched to the way we think? I doubt it. It may be sometimes true that the length and pace of book is perfectly fit to certain arguments, but when that happens, it is a happy coincidence. There is nothing about the amount of content that fits into a hand-held paper presentation that has any special importance to the human mind. Nor is it easy to argue that printed squiggles have some privileged channel to thought. Reading is an unnatural act, a trick that we have learned to move ideas across space and time.

A better argument might be that we have easier control over the pace and order of book than a video. That is true, but it points about the advantages of other media, such as linked interactive text, over books. Straight lines of thought and presentation can be a useful tool, but they are a constraint, not a unique advantage. Carr complains that his mind "now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles." This sounds pretty good to me. Seekers of knowledge will naturally gravitate toward the richest and most useful sources. They are gravitating away from books.

I put my love for books in the same category as my fondness for mechanical clocks. There is an art to them, and I am enriched for knowing what they hold inside. I am awed at what can be accomplished within such constraints. Yet, I would not argue that they have any special entitlement to greatness. Books, like mechanical clocks, were created to serve a purpose. Whether it is to inform, to entertain or to enlighten, the same purpose can often be served by better means.

Romance novels may have a future, but we are witnessing the sunset of the tome. I believe in George Dyson's vision of a tomorrow where books of knowledge are oddities, relegated to the obscure depths of monasteries and search engines. It makes me a little sad and nostalgic. But my sadness is tempered by the sure understanding that is neither the last nor the first change in format for our accumulation of wisdom. The book is a fine and admirable device, but I do not doubt that clay tables and scrolls of papyrus had charms of their own.

DAVID BRIN [7.22.08]

This latest tiff (e.g. Shirky-Sanger) seems to boil down to another of Robert Wright's zero-sum dichotomies—like the hoary left-right political axis, or the "choice" we are all-too frequently offered, between safety and freedom. Simplistic tradeoffs ought to raise our hackles. Is the Google Era empowering us to be better, smarter, more agile thinkers... or transforming us into distracted, manic scatterbrains?

Alas, both sides are right... and both are missing key points. May I start by offering a step-back perspective?

Only a generation ago, intellectuals wrung their hands over what then seemed a legitimate concern, that the rapidly-increasing pace of discovery and knowledge-accumulation would force individuals to specialize more and more. This projection seemed logical. It also reflected the one monotonic trend of the 20th Century—a professionalization-of-all-things.

Funny thing, you just don't hear much about fear of over-specialization, anymore. Yet, has the tsunami of new knowledge ceased? Then why did that worry go away?

As it turned out, several counter-trends (some of them having nothing to do with the Internet) seem to have transformed the intellectual landscape. Today, most scientists seem far more eclectic, agile and cross-disciplinary than ever. They seek insights and collaboration far afield from their specialties. Conversations like this one abound. Institutions like UCSD's Sixth College deliberately blend the arts and sciences, belying C.P. Snow's "two cultures." Moreover, the spread of avocations and ancillary expertise suggest we're heading toward a looming Age of Amateurs.

If anything our worry has mutated. Instead of fretting about specialists "knowing more and more about less and less," today's info-glut has had an inverse effect—to spread peoples' attention so widely that they—in effect—know just a little about a vast range of topics. No longer do we fear "narrowmindedness" as much as "shallowmindedness."

Indeed, Larry Sanger is right to see the present incarnation of the web as depressingly superficial, facile and often frivolous. If Clay Shirky revels in the blogosphere, can he point to anything that it actually accomplishes? Name a problem that all this "discourse" has decisively solved—in a world where problems proliferate and accumulate at record pace?

Let's make the challenge simpler—can Shirky even point to one stupidity that has been decisively disproved?

Isn't that the ultimate aim of most enlightenment processes? To facilitate the evolution of consensus away from discredited errors and toward generally reliable (and useful) truths? Sure, the blogosphere engenders the raw material of productive discourse—opinion. Massive, pyroclastic flows of opinion. (Including this one.) But, if Theodore Sturgeon's law says "Ninety percent of anything is crap" then what do you do when the ratio is tens of thousands to one? And when there is never, ever any way to decisively determine which is which?

Bullshit makes great fertilizer. But (mixing metaphors a bit) shouldn't there be ways to eventually let the pearls rise and the worst of the noxious toxins go away, like Phlogistin and Baal worship? More to the point, isn't that what happens in the older Enlightenment systems—markets, democracy, science and law courts? After argument and competitive discourse in those arenas, aren't decisions eventually reached, so that people can move on to the next problem, and the next?

The crux: today's web and blogosphere have only half of the process that makes older Enlightenment "accountability arenas" function. Imagination and creativity are fostered. But we also need the Dance of Shiva, destroying the insipid and vicious and untrue and stupid, to make room for more creativity! No censors or priests or arbiters of taste can do that, but a market could, if today's Web offered tools of critical appraisal and discourse, in addition to tools of fecund opinionation.

Note that my complaint isn't the same as Larry Sanger's—about my fellow citizens becoming "nekulturny" and losing the ability to read (as in the Walter Tevis novel Mockingbird.) Sure, I wish (for example) that some of the attention and money devoted to shallow movie sci-fi would turn to the higher, literary form, with its nuanced gedankenexperiments about speculative change. At one level, I share Sanger's worry about losing the best mental skills and tools and memes of the past.

Still, there is nothing unique about today's quandary. Each generation faces a rapid expansion of available facts and concepts. Ever since the arrival of glass lenses and movable type, the amount that each person can see and know has multiplied, even exponentiated, with new tools ranging from newspapers and lithographs, tosteamships and telegraphs, to television and so on. Shall we preach that the old ways (and the old stuff, like Tolstoy) were better? Shouldn't a modern person worry, upon hearing such words uttered by his or her own mouth? Dang kids. Turn off that radio and get off my lawn.

Consider, every time new prosthetics allowed people to see and know much more, conservatives and nostalgists claimed that normal people could not adapt. That such godlike powers should be reserved to an elite, perhaps even renounced.

Meanwhile, enthusiasts zealously have greeted every memory and vision prosthetic with hosannas, forecasting an apotheosis of reason and light.

(In 1894, philanthropist John Jacob Astor wrote a best-selling novel about the year 2001—a future transformed by science, technology, enterprise and human good will. Life can be ironic. Astor died with a famed flourish of noblesse oblige aboard the sinking Titanic—the first of many garish calamities that began quenching this naive zeal for progress. For a while.)

In reality, the vision and memory prosthetics brought on consequences that were always far more complicated than either set of idealists expected. Out of all this ruction, just one thing made it possible for us to advance, ensuring that the net effects would be positive. That one thing was the pragmatic mind set of the Enlightenment.

Gradually, we crafted markets, democracy, science and law courts that harnessed human competitiveness in ways that minimized the blood on the floor, while maximizing creative output. Each of the new new godlike powers slipped into these competitive arenas, harnessing them under fair and transparent—though always flawed—rules.

No, what's needed is not the blithe enthusiasm preached by Shirky... or Sanger's grouchy nostalgia. What is needed is a hard, pragmatic look at what's missing from today's web. Tools that might help turn quasar-levels of gushing opinion into something like discourse. New versions of what worked for the Enlightenment—markets, democracy etc—so that several billion people can do more than just express a myriad shallow rumors and shallow ideas, but test them, compare them (like shoppers, or voters or scientists or lawyers) and actually reach some conclusions, now and then!

What kind of tools might help a storm of opinion turn into discourse? There are several key features of markets, democracy, science and law that the Internet has never provided, for all of its notable fecundity. Simple tools and services that might add a little depth and traction to its usefulness as an arena of problem-solving.

But what matters is stepping back from yet another tiresome dichotomy between fizzy enthusiasm and testy nostalgia.