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Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?
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Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?

Digital Life

Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?
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MIKE PESCA, host:

It's 30 years ago when you walk into the library.

(Soundbite of door creaking)

PESCA: Right this way, son! says a PT Barnum-esque man who greets you at the door.

(As Circus Announcer) Right here in this corner, I am debuting the librarian of the future, Marion 2000.

(Soundbite of futuristic videogame noise)

PESCA: (As Circus Announcer) Go ahead and ask her anything. Any book, any document, any article, she'll get it for you.

(As Timid Boy) Well, I'm doing a report on Genghis Khan.

(As Circus Announcer) It's Jenghis (ph) Khan!

(As Timid Boy) OK. Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde...

And before "horde" even leaves your lips, 20 books and articles on the very subject appear.

(As Timid Boy) Oh, OK, what about Roe versus Wade? I always wondered who Roe was.

And instantly 13,000 articles on Norma McCorvey, including one written by her, appear.

(As Circus Announcer) Anything else?

(As Timid Boy) Well, I like baseball, but "The Baseball Encyclopedia" is kind of cumbersome.

Fine, here's every baseball stat ever collected, and because of the library-bot, thousands more have been invented. So, now, back to the present. So, now, here is the question. Do you mean to tell me that Marion 2000 is a bad thing? Well, Nicholas Carr seems to be saying just that, because the super librarian does exist.

(Soundbite of futuristic videogame noise)

PESCA: Only she's not called Marion. She's called Google. And in the latest issue of the Atlantic Magazine, Nicholas Carr asks this question, is Google making us stupid? Hello, Nicholas.

Mr. NICHOLAS CARR (Writer, Atlantic Magazine): Hi.

PESCA: I'm glad you're here, rather than just having me reference you, and then not be here to defend yourself. So, what do you mean? What do you mean, is Google making us stupid? How could it be making us stupid?

Mr. CARR: Well, on the one hand, as you pointed out, Google and the Internet allow us to get all sorts of information very, very quickly. At the same time, I sense that they're imposing on us, and I sense this from my own experience, a new way of thinking that's very much molded to the way we gather information online, which is to jump around very, very quickly, scan a lot of things, and not spend really any time concentrating in depth on one subject, or contemplating, God forbid, one subject the way we used to do, when we would, for instance, read books. So, it's, I sense, imposing on us a kind of new way of thinking, and we gain a lot, but we may be losing something as well.

PESCA: Right. But I guess, to grab us with the headline, it's not - is Google imposing a new line of thinking, it's making us stupid, so it seems to be emphasizing the negatives there? Now, do you mean Google or the whole Internet? Or you really do talk about Google?

Mr. CARR: Well, I mean the whole Internet, but Google plays such an important role today, and really is, when it comes to the way we find information and traverse the net, is really the dominant player out there. And so I use Google as an example and as kind of a symbol of this new - what I call - intellectual ethic that is emerging, and kind of governing the net as an information resource.

PESCA: How's it different from the really well-talked-about notion of just shorter - shortening attention spans?

Mr. CARR: I think that's part of it, but really, the way we gather information itself is by jumping around, and that is something that's promoted not only by the tools, technological tools, of the net, but by the economic and commercial interests of Google and other companies, who want us to jump around as much as possible, and see as many pages, and see as many advertisements.

And what happens is, and I think this is true of new media or new intellectual technologies throughout history, is it begins to shape the way we think, and it makes it harder when we're offline even to, for instance, concentrate on long pieces of prose. And it was my own experience in having difficulty with reading books, something that used to come very natural to me, that really was the spur to write the article.

PESCA: Now, if we find out that you have a brain tumor, you're going to take it all back, right?

Mr. CARR: Yes, a happy thought.

PESCA: Meaning if that was the difficulty. Yeah, right. But someone 30 years ago, if they were doing a research paper on Genghis Kahn and the Golden Horde, wouldn't they skim the information that was returned? They'd probably be a more primitive search engine. It might be the reader's guide to periodical literature or card catalogues, but you're telling me back then, they'd be reading the whole book? They'd just be reading long, long articles at a time? They'd be using it and trying to use the functionality. Like, it's just that Google's gotten more functional, no?

Mr. CARR: It's - as our brains adapt to this method of gathering information, and as a method of gathering information, I admit it's extremely useful, and that's why I use it so much. But as our brains adapt to this, and again, this is something that happens when there are new media that we become reliant on, our brains begun - begin to work along the terms of that medium, you know, skimming begins to take over and displace any other mode of taking in information.

PESCA: Are you saying that skimming actually changes the texture or composition, or at least functioning of our brains?

Mr. CARR: Absolutely.

PESCA: Oh, really? Tell me about that.

Mr. CARR: Yeah. Reading, for instance, is not a genetic trait built into the human brain. It's something we have to learn. We have to literally kind of program the neural circuits in our minds when we're children, and throughout our lives to do that accomp - to accomplish that task, and any kind of information medium, any media that we use to gather information, to read or whatever. Our brains are very adaptable, and very malleable, and the circuits will adapt to that new medium.

And for instance, you know, one thing I talk about in the article is that neurological studies show that people who use ideograms for reading, like the Chinese, have very different neural patterns inside their brain than people who use the alphabet to read. And in a similar way, we can assume that reading information, taking in information online, is going to reshape literally those neural circuits from the way they were laid out, when we take in information from the printed page, for instance. So, yeah, I mean, at a biological level, I think it will change and is changing our brains.

PESCA: Now, you say a lot of your friends and the people you talk to have said, yeah, I, too, have trouble reading the really long books now, and they blame Google. So this group of people that you've - this sample size, mostly, like, your friends from biker bars and monster-truck rallies?

Mr. CARR: Yeah, exactly. No...

PESCA: This is my point. They're literary types right?

Mr. CARR: Right. And not all of them notice this phenomenon, but quite a few have, and in the wake of the publication of my article, I mean, there have been - you know, I have been almost shocked to see through the emails I receive, or the posts that people are putting up on their blogs, how many people say, yeah, you know, this describes perfectly the struggles I'm having with reading, with sitting down and maintaining my concentration.

PESCA: Well, the reason I raise that is not to be a Philistine, or to beat about the brow and head a literary-type person, but just to make the point. If you're saying Google's making us stupid, I guess the question would have to be compared to - what? Because if it's compared to the books that literary types are emerged in, maybe. But if it's compared to where we were 20 years ago, with most people getting their information from a television, would you say that maybe Google's making us a little smarter than television?

Mr. CARR: If we value the ability to immerse ourselves in long works of prose, and the ability to concentrate, and to engage in contemplation, then losing that to me would be a huge loss. That doesn't mean everybody has always valued those kind of traits, and it doesn't mean that somebody couldn't argue that, hey, who cares about that crap anyway? I mean, we're better off just by skimming along and getting as much information as possible.

PESCA: No. No. I'm not saying that. Yeah.

Mr. CARR: But no - well, some people - I mean, some people do say...

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. CARR: Some people do argue that - that, you know, this is the latest shift in the way people think, and the way people gather information, and you know, so we lose some stuff. So we lose the ability to contemplate and concentrate, but we gain, you know, this incredible velocity of information flow and - you know, you can argue that.

To me, the loss of our ability to engage in contemplation, to immerse ourselves in reading, the loss of that would be a big loss, because - and here I refer to the work of Marianne Wolf, who's a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, but as she says, you know, deep reading in many ways is indistinguishable from deep thinking, and I think that's true. And that would be to me a grave loss. For some others, it wouldn't be so much of a loss.

PESCA: I like the anecdote you have about Nietzsche in there.

Mr. CARR: Yeah.

PESCA: Nietzscha (ph). If I was better read, I'd know how to pronounce it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARR: Nietzsche, at one point in his life, his eyes were - had become very, very bad, and the strain of having to look at a page while he wrote was debilitating to him, and along came the typewriter ,and he got a typewriter, and suddenly he could write without having to focus on the page. He could touch type. But one of his friends noticed, and Nietzsche noticed as well, that the quality of his thinking changed as he took on - as he adapted his writing to this new machine.

And as Nietzsche put it, and I'm paraphrasing here, you know, our machines influence the way we think, and you know, this is - this - what I'm talking about is by no means a new idea. Marshall McLuhan talked about it in the '60s. People - Lewis Mumford talked about it before then. I mean, our intellectual machines that we use do very much, I think, influence the way we think, the way we look at things, the way we experience the world, and to think that the Internet would somehow be different and wouldn't affect that, would be, to me, a stretch.

PESCA: But when you say Nietzsche, it affected the quality of his thought, you don't mean quality in terms of A-plus versus C-minus. He started to write in more aphorisms, right?

Mr. CARR: Right.

PESCA: He started to write a little punchier, not this long discursive writing. And from that point on...

Mr. CARR: Right. And yet, you know, you could argue that, you know, it may well have improved his work.

PESCA: Well, most of the Nietzsche that's quoted now is stuff that happened after 1882...

Mr. CARR: Oh, yeah.

PESCA: You know, "Twilight of the Idols."

Mr. CARR: Right.

PESCA: If that which does not kill me makes me stronger. Kanye West is referencing it, because Nietzsche got a little, you know, zippier in his writing and maybe it helped him.

Mr. CARR: That's right. Oh, yeah. Oh, it may well have just like the - I think the printing press helped all of us. I don't use it as a - an example to denigrate intellectual technologies in general. I just use it as an example to show that these things do influence the way we think, for better or for worse.

PESCA: Well, other than thinking about this, which is always good to do, and I'm sure a lot of listeners are identifying with it, and a lot of people are objecting to it, but there are couple - laced throughout the article, a couple of practical considerations that you put forth. What could we do if we think that, you know, Google is doing this to us, but we still kind of need Google for work or pleasure or whatever?

Mr. CARR: Well, you know, as I said, nobody's going to unplug the Internet, and the reason we use it so much is because it's useful and it's often enjoyable. You know, I don't think - as a society, I don't think there's really much we can do. I think our brains are going to change, and we're going to think differently, and we're going to lose some capabilities, and gain some new capabilities.

As individuals, though, you know, if your experience is similar to mine in that you find that, you know, when you pick up a book your brain wants to - your brain wants you just keep doing what you were doing when you were online, which is jumping around, checking your email, doing all this, and you value the ability to read, and to concentrate, and to contemplate, then I think you can do pretty simple things, which is, you know, limit your use of your PC, and limit your use of the Internet, and take time off, and make sure you set aside time to read.

What I have found is that, you know, the brain is very malleable. So if I, you know, go offline for a week or two, and do concentrate on reading, then that capability begins to come back. You know, pretty much stating the obvious, but if you don't like what the net's doing to your brain, then use the net less.

PESCA: Nicholas Carr's latest book is "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google," and his article in the Atlantic was called, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Thanks very much, Nicholas.

Mr. CARR: Thanks, Mike.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Well, in scoring that debate, and I was playing devil's advocate. I was trying to give the guy a hard time, and like, you know, Professor Hart in "The Paper Chase." No, no, no, who was the professor? Mr. Hart. Who was the professor played by John Houseman? Yeah, the professor in the "The Paper Chase," you know, the Socratic Method. He has tough questions, none of which you maybe even believe in, and maybe get good answers, but I just would like to note for those of you - what's the name, say again? Kingsfield, that's right, Professor Kingsfield. Someone's whispering in my ear.

So, for those of you scoring at home, if you noticed this, I made a reference to works that one is emerged in, and he - because he knows how to, you know, think and talk, and doesn't use too much Google, kind of talked about, yes, those works that one is immersed in. So just based on that, you tell me who's the stupid one? The guy challenging the notion that Google's making us stupid, or the guy questioning him? Stupid spelled correctly has 210 hits on Google. Stupid spelled with two Os has four million hits on Google.

The cover of the Atlantic spells two - stupid with two Os, making it look a little more like the word "Google." It was a really nice iconography, and Nicholas there told me, you know, not my idea for a headline, and then we both agreed whoever came up with it certainly drove a lot of traffic to the site, and a lot of traffic, I am going to guess, to the BPP's site. We'll have to check out after the show, because that is it for this hour of the BPP. We are always online at npr.org/bryantpark. I am Mike Pesca and this is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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