And the Survey Says: Google Is Not Making You Stupid

By Smriti Rao | February 22, 2010 2:30 pm

is_google_making_us_stupidIn 2008, writer Nicholas Carr worried in The Atlantic that the search engine Google and the easy availability of information on the internet is making our brains lazy–and rendering humans stupid. He wrote that the net was destroying his capacity for concentration and contemplation, adding, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

DISCOVER’s own Carl Zimmer responded by taking the opposite stance, and declaring that Google is making us smarter. He argued that humans are “natural born cyborgs” and the internet is our “giant extended mind.” He wrote that there was “nothing unnatural about relying on the internet—Google and all—for information…. Nor is there anything bad about our brains’ being altered by these new technologies, any more than there is something bad about a monkey’s brain changing as it learns how to play with a rake.”

Now, a new survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project agrees with Zimmer; it found that Google is indeed making us smarter by allowing us to make better choices. More than 76 percent of the 895 experts polled said Nicholas Carr was wrong in thinking that Google made us stupid.

PC Magazine reports:

“Google allows us to be more creative in approaching problems and more integrative in our thinking. We spend less time trying to recall and more time generating solutions,” said Paul Jones of at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

“For people who are readers and who are willing to explore new sources and new arguments, we can only be made better by the kinds of searches we will be able to do,” wrote Oscar Gandy, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Of course, the kind of Googled future that I am concerned about is the one in which my every desire is anticipated, and my every fear avoided by my guardian Google. Even then, I might not be stupid, just not terribly interesting.”

Nicholas Carr meanwhile said he “felt compelled to agree with himself,” telling the Pew Project:

“What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking.”

Peter Norvig, Google’s research director, argued in turn that because Google makes so much information available instantly, it’s a good strategy for a knowledge-seeker to skim through many offerings first to get an overview. Then the user can settle down with the best sources for a deeper read. He added that skimming and concentrating can and should coexist.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: How Google Is Making Us Smarter
DISCOVER: Big Picture: 5 Reasons Science [Hearts] Google
DISCOVER: Google Taught Me How to Cut My Own Hair

Image: The Atlantic

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
MORE ABOUT: google, intelligence
  • Jay Warner

    There is a type of thinking that prefers to ‘skim along the surface’ of information, then select a conclusion. If they do a reasonable analysis, or if we agree with the conclusion, we call this a good thing. I find that Google gives me that vastly greater access to information, but I have trouble winnowing down even what it offers, because I tend to go very deeply into details.

    The issue is not, IMHO, in whether Google stupefies us, but in how well we perform the analysis and synthesis. Google does nothing for that.

  • MSD

    How many “thinkers” used to spend hour upon hour at the library doing research? How is that much different than using Google, or any other online resource? There may be more risk of finding information that is incorrect or that may not be verified, but there is usually more of it and it’s available in an instant. And it still takes an intelligent person to wade through it all to find the relevant and accurate facts which may help them form an astute opinion.

    I completely agree that while the internet has changed the method by which we apply our intelligence, the tool itself has not robbed us of it.

    Now, reality TV on the other hand…

  • Ceci

    I think Carr is antiquated. Sure, deep thinking is important, but it can happen with or without google. Again, tools only depend on the people who use them. The worst part is that he can’t accept when he’s wrong.

  • Dash

    I have to agree with you, MSD, but there is the worry that the internet is making us stupid in that it becomes harder to develop ones own opinion about facts. This isn’t much more different then, say, a 1st grade teacher representing our government as flawless not so much by saying it but with little signals that we subconsciously pick up on. But this type of tampered information trading is unfortunately common in education and so I don’t think the internet can be held responsible. In fact, one might be able to argue all the heavily opinionated pieces help remind thinkers to do their own work.


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