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Open Thread: Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?

Writer Nicholas Carr stopped by the BPP to discuss his provocatively-titled Atlantic Monthly article "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?"

In case you're wondering, Carr says that it's the nature and structure of the whole Internet, not just Google that he's talking about.

Carr says the Internet has shortened our attention spans. The Internet, he says, encourages us to click and skim, rather than to read and think. He also says the Internet actually makes it harder for us to read longer books and articles. Has that been your experience?



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Hey, what a surprise! A guy who writes books for a living is complaining that people don't spend enough time reading books!

Sent by Edward Noodliton | 12:30 PM | 6-16-2008

Funny. These were the same accusations made of the Erie Canal, with its mind-boggling 7-mph speed for barge traffic, the Transcontinental Railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and television --with only the last one having some credence. Tomorrow, it will something else.

So far as the Internet shortening our attention spans, let me draw a parallel to the telegraph. According to one author who analyzed the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was strongly influenced by the high-speed communication of the telegraph, even including its rapid-fire responses in his Gettysburg Address. He didn't care for long oratory on the telegraph --the kind prefered by newspaper editors of the time-- because, with the telegraph, it delayed the main point of the transmission. When Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, it was not well received by the public and the press. Edward Everett, on the other hand, delivered a two-hour long oratory which was very well received by the audience at that time. Few people remember Edward Everett's words. People have long remembered Lincoln's words. So much for short attention spans.

Sent by Matthew Scallon | 12:33 PM | 6-16-2008

Yeah, it's a provocative title, similar to one such as "Is Atlantic Monthly Making Us Pretentious"?

Yes, it's true that most of us skim lot of what we see on the Internet. But the other less understood side of that is that being online also allows us to connect with people who have similr interests in ways that are impossible off-line.

I'm amazed by the number of people I know who spend large amounts of their time online engaged in lively and thoughtful discussions about everything from the pets to global warming and civil war weaponery.

The internet, like any other tool, is as good or evil as you allow it to be. I'm just surprised that in 2008, we're still having this discussion.

And, btw, just so you don't think I'm some Facebook obsessed college student, I'm a 53-year-old guy who has made his living online for more than a decade.

Sent by Rick Ellis | 12:42 PM | 6-16-2008

Well, I'll say that I don't care to read long articles (or books of any kind) on a computer screen, but that's something entirely different from not wanting to read books and long articles at all. I just prefer to read them on paper is all.

In fact, if anything, I would suspect that my inclination to read longer things online has probably increased dramatically in the 15 years I've been doing such things, simply because the act of reading a lot of text on a computer screen is both physically easier to do than it was back in the ol' Gopherspace days and because it feels much less foreign now to do so.

Plus, I'm in my nice comfy chair in my nice comfy home office and not in the middle of the undergrad Mac lab, having to get up every 30 seconds to either show someone how to print a document or bust someone for looking at porn.

Sent by Stewart | 12:49 PM | 6-16-2008

Chances are, the internet IS affecting our attention span. To get back to Matthew, political speeches (or the parts that get rehashed and remembered) have been reduced to sound bytes by our media filtering - that filtering was once reporters summarizing stump speeches, and Matthew's right about the subsequent uproar.

In terms of media consumption, though, we have a plethora of options that provide instant gratification. Countless podcasts and videos are available to me, and as such, I sometimes have trouble sitting through a feature-length film. Troubling, I know. After realizing this, I'm trying to limit my intake of "fun sized" media and want to re-develop my attention span. That said, it's hard. So while I wouldn't argue that the internet necessarily makes us stupid, but it certainly makes us impatient.

Sent by Erica | 1:26 PM | 6-16-2008

I can see that the internet has allowed me to "multi-task" information. I don't read as much on subjects that intersts me as I used to. Now I "Google" it then glance through a few articles on the subject. I feel I have more general knowledge that I used to, but I don't have as much depth.

Sent by Sharon | 1:41 PM | 6-16-2008

I disagree with this man's argument. As a graduate student, I use the Internet all of the time. While I don't cite many Web sites in my papers because it is not scholarly, I do use it a TON for research purposes. The guest you had on the show argues that because of the Internet, we don't read articles as in-depth as we would otherwise. Well, I beg to differ. As a graduate student in the liberal arts, I read articles in a very in-depth way and I think that has carried over to my personal life. One must read things in-depth in order to make a critical judgement upon a subject. The Internet has made more information available which is helpful to many people, especially students.

Sent by Julia Havelick | 3:35 PM | 6-16-2008

Well, I got through this BLOG post didn't I?

Sent by Sandy, Honolulu | 3:48 PM | 6-16-2008

@Erica, I contend that sound bytes and media filtering have been with us since the first scribe put camel's blood to papyrus. That's not a function of the medium, per se, that's a function of the author.

Now, I feel that there may be anxiousness with how fast information is coming, but the human race is adaptative. Anxiousness doesn't have to lead to impatience or inattentativeness, for that matter.

Sent by Matthew Scallon | 5:35 PM | 6-16-2008

@Sandy, Honolulu, LOL. I like your comments.

Sent by Matthew Scallon | 5:37 PM | 6-16-2008

I wouldn't agree that Google is making us stupider (or stoopider). I think society would do that whether Google was there or not.

I do think Google is actually making us less organized. What was their slogan for Google desktop -- "Why organize when you can just search?" or something like that. Now you just download stuff, stick it somewhere on your hard drive, then just do a Google desktop search for it when you want it. No more digging!

One problem I see as a result is that you can't find stuff if it isn't tagged or labeled properly. It becomes lost forever. So there is a certain amount of organization needed to make Google style organizing work, but few people go to that effort.

The second problem is one Carr brought up. We begin to adapt to the tools we use, and I think that people are becoming less organized in their physical lives now too. Of course I don't really have evidence for this, but I have noticed at the office that desks and papers have no organization whatsoever. We've got a really nifty and easy to use database, but my co-workers can't find their important meeting notes that tell them how to use it. What's happening is that work has been made even easier to do than before. But stuff like memory skills, planning and prioritizing, even spelling, has begun to deteriorate because we depend so much on Google.

Stupider -- no. Less organized -- yes.

Sent by Brian | 5:05 AM | 6-17-2008

How is this any different from reading the newspaper?

Sent by allhigs | 7:51 AM | 6-19-2008

People's attention spans are shortened by far more problematic things than the internet. Furthermore, if someone choose to not read an entire article, could it be that the writer is just incredibly dull and lifeless?

Additionally, the fact is a matter of necessity. We go as deep as we ned to go on a subject matter in terms of practicality. And if you feel you only have a topical knowledge of a particular subject, it doesn't take brilliance to figure out how to delve deeper into it.

Sent by Michael Perry Goodman | 8:35 AM | 6-19-2008

I think this research was not very well thought out. Of course, any technology is going to have its down sides, and any new technology that we develop will have its critics.

As for shortening our attention span, I believe that our attention span IS shortened, but only while we are surfing the web. I believe as humans we adapt to whatever medium we are choosing to use, whether it be a long novel, a short blog post, a documentary, or a half hour newscast.

The internet can be used for in-depth reading when necessary but for most, it is used to gain a general knowledge of things that are happening in the world around us. However, if there is something that we are interested in, we can research in depth, and we can find millions of sources through the internet!

Google is not making us stupid, it is just changing our knowledge a bit. Now we can learn a lot of new things very quickly, and because of that, we will skim very quickly. But, that doesn't mean we will have a shorter attention span in general.

If that were true, movies wouldn't be making millions of dollars.

Sent by Matt | 9:15 AM | 6-19-2008

I consider the ability to "skim" through documents a skill that is necessary to survive to information deluge that the internet provides us with. Another prerequisite of the internet age is to get a feel for the authority of the source. The generation growing up with ubiquitous internet access are showing a healthy scepticism of any article unless it is well supported by independent authoritative sources. The ability to question and discuss articles are notable only by their absence these days.
I think there needs to be a distinction made between reading long-form pieces such as books and information gathering on the internet. Anybody who struggles with this separation only has themselves to blame.

Sent by Dave Kinsella | 9:17 AM | 6-19-2008

First of all, Google and the Internet cannot MAKE anyone do or be anything. No more that television for that matter - though it has been accused of the same thing for many years longer than the Internet has been around. I'm sorry for all the people and experts out there who want to lay blame at the doorstep of inanimate objects, but the only person who can make me stupid, or violent, or anything else is ME. And while I love to read a good book, at the age of 56 I predate the Internet by a number of years, and I have never managed to read War and Peace. As for skimming articles - I was taught to do that back in school. It's a standard method for research. First you skim. If there is meat there you go back and read carefully. If not, go on to the next. And I'm sure Evelyn Woods made her first million long before Google made theirs. I would also point out to Mr. Carr that the Harry Potter books are the largest selling books, ever. Have you looked at the length of the last couple of books? They are as big as War and Peace, but an entire generation of kids raised on the Internet and TV do not seem to have any problems reading them. Perhaps Mr. Carr is just a very boring writer.

Sent by Deb Lawley | 9:36 AM | 6-19-2008

I think what Carr means is that we take less time to read or to do things that really require deep thought -- such as come up with well conceived solutions to really complex problems and issues. The result of all the jumping around and lack of focus would be less rational, more off-the-cuff thinking and behavior. He could be on to something -- but time will have to tell. Of course it isn't Google's fault; we're all responsible for our own behavior. The point is, that we get accustomed to not focusing, not taking the time sit quietly and contemplate answers and solutions, and that leads to poor choices which make us appear "stoopid". I'm starting to believe the researchers who say that letting children watch too much kids TV before age 3 are right -- ADD and ADHD are possible results. Scary that we can see it happening in our kids and still not recognize it in ourselves.

Sent by jgraziani | 10:12 AM | 6-19-2008

This is the same old, same old "new technology is bad" argument. Really if you think people are more stupid today, try TV. Scientific studies show that it causes attention span problems in children. How about skimming? People grab onto sound bites and don't go in-depth into researching it or even thinking about it when they watch it on TV news. If we're unable to "engage in contemplation" why is it I notice that Carr never addressed the interviewers question about Google being better than TV? I think this comes down to blaming the new media but you can't blame the older media because that would just be kicking the dead horse.

Sent by Brandie H | 10:18 AM | 6-19-2008

I disagree with the author. One has to deeply understand the meaning of information and knowledge. According to Webster - Information means knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction. Knowledge means the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association. So if internet provides us information we can use that information to be familiar with what is happening, what facts exist and associate with our experieince. Before Internet, the source of information was through books, media and personal experience along with other modes of communication. But today sites like Google provide us with access to information that many before the Internet had no exposure to. Therefore i feel that Internet has helped people read more, experience more and thus gain more knowledge.

Sent by Viral Trivedi | 1:51 PM | 6-19-2008

My pet peeve on the internet is that people are forgetting (if they ever even knew) everything about the English language. Have you ever seen the spelling online or the grammar? I understand typos but you could at least use the spell-check. I have even seen misspellings on so-called professional websites. That is disgraceful. No, I'm not an English teacher......just someone who likes to utilize what I have learned.

Sent by Deana B. | 2:46 PM | 6-19-2008

I didn't skim this article fast enough to miss the typos :)

Sent by Sam | 3:08 PM | 6-19-2008

"In fact, if Carr is correct, you may never even make it to the end of this article."

Not finishing the article has nothing to do with whether Carr is correct or not. I didn't finished the article becuase:

1) I jumped to comment halfway through

2) I don't plan on returning to finish the article since so far nothing insightful, interesting or new has been brought to the conversation by this story. It's just a rehash of something that has already been written.

This my friend is where mainstream journalism has died.

Mainstream journalism is about having the final say on a topic, when what the readers really want to have is a conversation. Carr brought up a conversation and instead of continuing that conversation as blogger untrained as a traditional journalist would do, you simply rehashed the conversation. It's the difference between an athlete and a sports commentator. Imagine if instead of sports commentators, we had conversation commentators. That's what you've just done.

Try continuing the conversation instead.

Farewell Traditional News 1.0, Welcome Conversation 1.0

To continue the conversation with Carr, I happen to think he is correct to a degree. I know my attention span is not what it used to be and while I cannot finish one book all the way through, I've instead adopted a habit of reading 3 to 6 books at a time, in which I read one or two chapters of one then cycle to the next.

The true value in today's internet is not in what you know but how "hyperlinked" you are.

I think that's equally as important as knowing something and it leads to a very different type of intelligence.

We are merely exchanging deep logic based intelligence for associational intelligence. Both have their merits and each is geared to tackling different sorts of problems.

Sent by Andrew de Andrade | 11:33 PM | 6-19-2008

Any type of technological advancement is analogous to one of Western civilization's oldest myths - Prometheus stealing fire. One aspect of this myth is that Prometheus was doomed because he gave man a tool he is unable to control. This type of skepticism will always remain - we see this fear of human technology and creation echoed in the Jewish folk story of the Golem, Frankenstein's monster, and HAL in 2001. Yet the central theme of the Promethean myth is that once man acquires this ability to create and manipulate fire (or the internet)he is face with an overwhelming question: "How do I use this tool?" Thus, the question of the internet's role in society is ultimately a matter of free will. Everything is simultaneously benevolent and malicious. It depends on the choices we make. Perhaps this is why Sartre claims man is "condemned to be free."

Sent by Stephen Kienzle | 4:58 PM | 6-20-2008

I am an English teacher who must deal with students and parents who spend little or no time reading. The ear phones, text messaging and i-searches exacerbate the problem of thoughtful research and critical thinking. How can this trend become a tool to hook people (young adults, especially) on the need for thoughtful consideration of topics?

Sent by Francie Domstrand | 6:47 AM | 6-25-2008