Saturday, June 14, 2008

Learning to be Stupid

The last time I encountered the work of Nicholas Carr, it was in the review by Mary Eisenhart of his book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google for the San Francisco

Carr devotes the second half of his book to the study of unintended (at least by the innovators and cheerleaders) consequences of the 20th century's technological breakthroughs and likely parallels in the 21st's.

Now Carr has an article in the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly entitled, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?;" and my kindred-spirit-feelers are tingling again! He presents the crux of his argument (which also makes it clear that his question is a serious one) through the assertion that "what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation." In my own writing I have tended to dwell on the noun "reflection" (along with its grammatical variants), rather than "concentration" or "contemplation;" and I seem to have a preference for the verb "erode." Beyond these lexical differences, however, I am delighted to see Carr squatting down on that same page I have been trying to develop for so many months (years?)! However, there are at least two directions to this argument that appear to be absent in Carr's piece; and I would like to pursue each of them.

The first is that, for all of my points of agreement with Carr, I have a different explanation for why Google is making us stupid! It resides in the way in which Google searches cultivate a view of knowledge as the ability to deliver straightforward answers to straightforward questions. Whether is this a matter of semantic analysis of the question (as, for example, Powerset tries to do) or of being clever enough to home in on the right keywords for Google or Wikipedia, this is a frighteningly impoverished view of knowledge. Our knowledge emerges from our experiences in the life-world, and we do so much more in that life-world than ask question for the sake of getting answers.

My second point comes not directly from Carr but from Charles Cooper's reading of Carr in his "Circling the wagons against Nick Carr" post for his Coop's Corner blog on CNET That reading is summarized as follows:

Carr's real concern is less with Google as the new bogeyman than on how our reliance on the Web might be turning us into multitasking scatterbrains.

Now my reading of Carr did not uncover much (anything?) about multitasking or, for that matter, the celebration of our youth culture for their capacity for multitasking. Nevertheless, Cooper's proposition deserves some consideration, although I think he fails to recognize that our capacity for multitasking is probably not as important as what gets multitasked. That question of what then brings me back to yesterday's attempt to write about our national malaise, because, from my point of view, the real danger of the Web is that it feeds our addiction to consumerism to such an extent that our consumerist life now interleaves with everything else we do, even in the classroom or the workplace. As a case in point, I share Cooper's interest in an anecdote by former chess champion Josh Waitzkin about sitting in on the class of a former professor:

Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief). From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban She had finally found her shoes!

When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom. Students defend this trend by citing their generation's enhanced ability to multi-task. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot, in fact, multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of our processing.

My reading of this anecdote is not that we are scatterbrains but that we have been reduced to that self-indulgent infantilism that I tried to examine yesterday. Nevertheless, in spite of what may have become a rather muddled amalgam of Carr, Cooper-reading-Carr, and my-reading-Cooper, I think that this line of reasoning recognizes that Google is one of the primary technologies through which the Web feeds our addiction to consumerism. Whether or not this makes us "stupid" according to intellectual criteria for intelligence, it certainly indicates a level of stupidity (some might prefer to say "immaturity") according to social and emotional criteria!

No comments: