Google: Making Nick Carr Stupid, But It’s Made This Guy Smarter

I will admit, I was entirely biased upon reading this story from Nick Carr, who has a knack for writing pieces that get a lot of attention by baiting his hook with contrarian link chum. Heck, he's really good at it, and I have a lot of respect for…


I will admit, I was entirely biased upon reading this story from Nick Carr, who has a knack for writing pieces that get a lot of attention by baiting his hook with contrarian link chum. Heck, he’s really good at it, and I have a lot of respect for Nick. So I’ll take the bait.

His piece starts by conjuring HAL, the famous AI which manipulates humans, then makes his case by citing his own “feeling” that Google has changed his attention span to somehow prove that search and web browsing in general is making us stupid.

Balderdash. What Carr is really saying is this: People are not reading long narrative anymore, and that makes me and my pals sad. So let’s blame the Internet!

Sounds an awful lot like the complaints we heard about TV making us stupid. Did TV make us stupid? I dunno, ask Steven Johnson. I bet he has an opinion on this piece as well.

Carr writes: “Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.”

So because Nick hasn’t come up with a singular thesis as to what the “Net’s intellectual ethic” is, we must declare it’s making us stupid, eh?

Huh. He goes on to claim that Google is, in essence, an industrial style factory driven by a philosophy that is mechanizing our collective intellect much like factory automation mechanized our collective workforce – in short, Google is turn our minds into nothing more than collective cogs in some borg like hive mind. We’re fucked, and it’s all Google’s fault.


Here’s another quote: “The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.”

Right. And that’s why Google encourages its workers to spend 20% of their time on passion projects. OK.

His conclusion: “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

Good lord. Somehow Carr seems to presume that there’s simply nothing valuable occurring in our minds when we engage with the extraordinary new medium of the web. Because we’re starting to think in different ways, it must be bad. Right? Carr may believe that search and the Internet make us stupid, but I will counter his personal, anecdote-driven conclusions with one of my own: when I am deep in search for knowledge on the web, jumping from link to link, reading deeply in one moment, skimming hundreds of links the next, when I am pulling back to formulate and reformulate queries and devouring new connections as quickly as Google and the Web can serve them up, when I am performing bricolage in real time over the course of hours, I am “feeling” my brain light up, I and “feeling” like I’m getting smarter. A lot smarter, and in a way that only a human can be smarter.

And I have a feeling I’m not alone. What do you guys think?

55 thoughts on “Google: Making Nick Carr Stupid, But It’s Made This Guy Smarter”

  1. @nmw: Yes, quintura is fun. It might not be the final answer. But at least they are trying. I get the sense that Google isn’t even trying.

    @John Battelle: Alright, so you’ve garnered 51 responses to you post. Well, only 23 responses, after you strip out the way-to-many times that I responded. 🙂 But still, a lot.

    For example, one blogger writes:
    Battelle complains that Carr is afraid of thinking in ‘different’ ways, when in fact the article is very much about the inability to focus attention due to the randomization that the net injects into our thinking. Any business that is monetized by frequency (of visits) must attempt to increase that frequency.

    That has been my central thesis for a while, too. There are ways of designing the search interaction to get users to delve more deeply into results, to cross-correlate and to help us make sense of what we are seeing and understand the broader picture. But being able to engage with information on that level results in a decrease in frequency of new queries, which results in a decrease in the number of ads one can show.

    Additionally, Nick Carr has 4-5 good blog post responses and anecdotes. This one was particularly compelling:
    Note the analogy to fast food (see also multiple McDonald’s comments above). Also note the comment about exploration vs. exploitation — I was trying to say something similar, above:

    So yes, you are indeed not alone. But it also seems to me that there a quite a lot of people that agree with Carr’s fundamental premise. Many more people than I actually expected. I thought that the blogosphere’s reaction would come out almost uniformly against Carr. Instead, quite a lot of people are agreeing with him.

    So I would be interested in hearing your additional thoughts on the matter. And I’m still wondering what 20% time has to do with it.

  2. Google is a godssend to me, It has helped me find the meanings to all words which are outside my vocablury, (quick google check here and correction following…) vocabulary! , It has helped me to voice my own opinions, it has also heled me to identify any kind of wildlife which appears in front of me… and vice versa. I never knew what a Swift looked like until the day I searched for it… and the day I searched for it, was exactly the day I saw it later on, high high up in the sky! Amazing.
    This fact bring up the concept of knowledge and association, which in turn supports the knowledge… unless you’re one of the insomniacs which stay up all night “Googling” in which case the human brain has no real chance to tie up connections and associations which form the part of working knowledge. My conclusion to this would be that with so much knowledge and know-how… It would be impossible to call someone stupid.
    Now I would like to ask Mr Carr ” Are you one of the kind which spend all night Googling? ”

  3. John,

    I definitely agree with you. The web plus my trusty laptop has made a dramatic (and generally positive) difference to the way I discuss things with friends, or watch TV or a movie.

    The internet is like a knowledge amplifier in this way – if I’m having an argument, now I can quickly back up opinions with facts. (And often find I was wrong, or at least that reality is more complicated and interesting than I first thought).

    We do suffer from the “curse of IMDB” though: my wife can’t resist the temptation of opening up the laptop to answer the “what else was she in?” question when we’re watching a film.

  4. I encourage everybody to read the full book, “The Shallows,” before coming to any conclusions. The valid criticisms raised here are all dealt with in his book, and supported with relevant and fascinating brain research. As a clinical psychologist, I find his thesis, essentially an update of Marshall McLuhan backed up with copious scientific study, a cogent one: Our regular use of the internet, like any form of media, changes us. The real question is, How?

  5. If this vapid piece of writing is the best counterargument you can muster, then perhaps Mr. Carr has a point.

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