The InterWebs are abuzz over the latest Atlantic cover story, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” and while I am sure that I will offer but one electronic drop in the deluge of reactions that will be and are appearing, I would like to plink down my two cents.
I am often irked by those who insist on bemoaning the loss of some fuzzy notion of “humanity” as technology progresses. I imagine there were plenty of folks who thought Gutenberg was a public nuisance, as his printing press was sure to make us all hermits and bookworms instead of, I don’t know, discussing the weather.
So was my trepidation as I began to read Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic piece, but on the whole, I was pleased to see it was not as filled with Luddite claptrap as I might have feared.
Carr describes the stated goals of Google’s founders, and begins with Sergey Brin’s quote,
“Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, [Larry] Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”
Carr’s response is unfortunately predictable, as he writes,
. . .their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.
But that isn’t at all what’s implied by Google’s efforts. Carr leaps to a familiar and unfounded conclusion that technological advances mandate a rejection of less tangible and less quantifiable human experiences. Google (or the Web or what have you) does not prevent contemplation, it does not frustrate creativity, and it does not force one to click anything until one is ready. The telephone doesn’t prevent one from giving or receiving a hug, but it allows the geographically distant to connect. A book doesn’t induce forgetfulness, but it allows minds to share their contents. (Happily, Carr also predicts this criticism, noting overreactions to the advent of books and printing, and offering, “So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism.”)
These technologies are supplements, they are amplifications, they are universalizers. Might people be more tempted to eschew contemplation or become more isolated (or whatever the charge is against a given form of tech) as things become easier to access and require less effort to consume? Of course, but that is due to the choice of the individual and the makeup of their character. To blame the technology for what we choose to do with it is to truly remove a piece of our humanity: our responsibility for our own behavior.