Wednesday, February 24, 2010

COLUMN: Google is making us even more stupider

My son, who’s 8, recently asked me, “Dad, how does Google know everything?” I took this to mean that I’ve been entirely too transparent about the source of my vast fatherly knowledge.

At first I thought about responding the same way I do when my kids ask me where babies come from (“Do I look like a doctor?”), but instead I decided to try to explain about how Google’s advanced system of algorithms crawls a vast worldwide network of computer databases. Not that I knew that — I had to Google it.

The fact of that matter is, to the benefit of any parent ever asked by a child why the sky was blue (“Do I look like a meteorologist?”), we now live in an age where no question need remain unanswered. Remember back before the Internet, when you walked around for days trying to remember who sang that song about Oz never giving nothing to the Tin Man? How did we survive those dark times?

So you can imagine my surprise when I read recently that there are those who insist that Google, despite being an unfettered source for infinite information, is actually making us all stupid. This would explain A LOT.

According to analyst Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic Monthly, using Google-found tidbits to skim the Web is keeping us from the type of “focused reading” that sets off “intellectual vibrations,” essentially making us stupider. Of course, his theory seems predicated on a dubious premise, namely that before Google, we all used to read the Atlantic Monthly from cover to cover in order to cleanse our palates between massive Proust marathons.

Of course, if you think back to pre-Web days, you’ll recall that what we were actually doing was watching “Married With Children.” Then, when the Internet came around, we took to the “Married With Children” message boards so we could call each other wankers.

But not everyone agrees with Mr. Carr. Jamais Cascio, also writing for Atlantic Monthly, said the Google method really helps us hone our ability to find “meaning in confusion.” For instance, if you Google “Lady Gaga,” you’ll get 75 million results; rather than become paralyzed by this overload of information, you will likely learn to focus your search to, say, “pictures of Lady Gaga wearing doilies.”

By contrast, if this were 1984 and you wanted to hone in on Madonna, you’d have to sit on the edge of your bed staring at the cover of “Like a Virgin” for hours on end. Er, not me. Other people.

The controversy is part of a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which surveyed hundreds of “technology stakeholders,” according to PC World. (I can only presume these are the people with bigger, more expensive TVs than I have, which is everybody.) The stakeholders said that Google is probably not making us stupid, although I think we should take into account the possibility that it already has, and that when they’re not taking surveys, the stakeholders mostly just sit around going “Pew … Heh, that’s a funny word.”

Not that they don’t have concerns. As stakeholder and University of Pennsylvania Prof. Oscar Gandy told PC World, “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.” Which I agree would be terrible, in the same way that having a robot butler would be terrible — you know, that awesome kind of way.

Carr, for his part, is sticking to his guns. “The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking,” he insists in the PC World article, and I’m assuming in his original Atlantic story as well. Although I can’t be positive, because I didn’t actually read it — I Googled it, but, well, I never clicked any of the links. I can point you to several hundred thousand fascinating pictures of Lady Gaga, though.

Gaga … Heh, that’s a funny word.

This column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at To receive At Large by e-mail, write to, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”

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