Is Google Making Us Stupid?

That’s the title to an article by Nicholas Carr that appeared in the July/August, 2009, Atlantic.

A student in my research paper writing class turned it up, and I read it.

Carr doesn’t conclude that Google makes us stupid. But in the course of making his argument, Carr recounts how his own reading habits have changed the more, over the years, he has used the internet. Sadly–or not–his experience parallels my own. He can speak for both of us:

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I have read perhaps three or four books from start to finish over the last five years. The last time I did I was on vacation and away from my computer. It was on the Middle Ages and I rather enjoyed it, especially the part about Magellan and his sad end.

But mostly now if the argument is complicated or requires “de-coding” or is more than four or five pages long I start getting irritated and frustrated; and this from a guy who once read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind from beginning to end, and almost enjoyed it. Looking now at that or Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, I wonder how I ever did it, and doubt very much that I could do it now.

The way I would put it–and I think Carr puts it this way too–is that the net has turned everything into information. Sure you could read the Phenomenology of Mind, but why on earth would you want to do, when one can’t find all sorts of Cliff Notes summaries of the thing, and, heck, many of them are pretty accurate (as summary) but not of course the experience itself. The experience itself is pretty amazing. Hegel lays down a line of reasoning, follows it out completely, pulls you completely in, then pulls the rug out from under you as he makes a dialectical leap of some kind, and you are forced to re-assess all the assumptions that got you to that point of departure. This sort of experience simply does not show up in Cliff Notes info bits.

What though–if one wants to know what Hegel said–would be point of this experience. It doesn’t show up as something can be turned into an info bit. The point of this kind of experience of reading is the experience itself and that’s about it.

So what’s being lost exactly. I don’t know. But I think the net may have a good deal to do with the way students write these days. They have been immersed in the net for years. Information is just a click away. The experience of reading is not. That may go part way at least as an explanation for the constant teacher complaint: students cannot follow or write themselves a sustained argument.

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