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Stupider Than What? February 24, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.

As I mentioned in the preceding post, Nicholas Carr authored an article in the Atlantic Monthly two summers ago entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  This article posits that the type of reading and research that we do on the Web is of a superficial nature, unlike the deep reading and understanding we practiced prior to the widespread availability of Web content.

He points out that this has largely been the case throughout history.  As new information technologies replaced old (for example, the printing press replacing hand-copied books), people adapted in the way they worked with information.  He notes that the same thing seems to be happening with Internet content.  There’s nothing radical or surprising there, yet he seems to delight in having us believe that there is.

Carr’s biggest beef seems to be with artificial intelligence, and here’s where his thesis breaks down.  This I know something about, as I studied and practiced artificial intelligence at a more academic point in my adult career.  He notes that the Google founders aim to create an artificial intelligence through search, and decries that as a pathway toward replacing human insight with mechanical thought.

Well, yes.  AI is largely search.  There’s no surprise here, no big revelation.  There’s no intelligence as we understand it in how computer programs perform – they simply search.  There are clever search algorithms, and ways to prune the search space to make some decisions more practical, but the ones with the fastest processors and biggest databases win.  That’s why they call it, um, *artificial* intelligence.

Either Carr doesn’t know this (I kind of doubt that), or he is using a dramatized example to make a simple case – our intelligence, and the way we process information in general, changes as how we communicate information changes.  Marshall McLuhan said it several decades ago: “The medium is the message.”  Carr doesn’t add anything to that, other than fearing that the changes are not for the better.  Yet the same can be said of any change, until the new becomes the old and accustomed.

Oddly, the body of the article never uses or even implies the word “stupid,” although it is encased in the title, another example of the provocative verbal hand grenades that Carr likes to lob at technology.  I don’t blame him; it’s the role he’s established for himself, and it serves him well.

As you might expect, Carr’s article provoked consternation among the technorati, as if it was an attack on our reason for being.  A more recent survey done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center on the future of the Internet attempts to refute a proposition that Carr never really makes, that the Internet in fact makes us stupid.  The Pew and Elon survey incorporates the opinions of almost 900 Internet stakeholders, responding to the following questions (among others):

  • Will Google make us stupid?
  • Will the internet enhance or detract from reading, writing, and rendering of knowledge?

As you might imagine, the respondents overwhelmingly agreed that a) Google is not making us stupid (and except in the title, Carr never claimed that), and b) the Internet is causing us to think differently, pretty much exactly has Carr has stated.

As the police are wont to tell bystanders at the scene of an accident, “Move on, nothing to see here.”



1. The Smarter Versus Dumber Debate, Revisited « Cutting Edge Computing - June 6, 2010

[…] June 6, 2010 Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized. trackback Just when I thought this debate was complete, there it was again, in big bold letters, on the front of Saturday’s Wall Street […]

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