Sunday, December 21, 2008

Is google making us stupid?

I was at a dinner party the other night. Right, that in itself sparks some interest - teacher invited to dinner party, what's the likelihood of that? Anyway, in the course of events we were discussing the role of technology in enhancing teaching & learning when someone suggested I needed to read Nicholas Carr's article in Atlantic, "Is google making us stupid?", cuts through all the cliches, he said. This was left open enough for me to make my own mind about the content, but the inference was that the hype around use of technologies may come with unexpected negative consequences. (Actually, I happen to believe that unless technologies are used effectively to enhance learning then all we are doing is edu-tainment, but that's another story). So I got a hold of the article and had a read.

Carr raises some interesting points. I was particularly intrigued by the notion that technologies can affect not just what we think, but how we think - an historical example he uses is how our concept of the world changed through the widespread use of timekeeping instruments. This led people to ignoring their senses and deciding to follow time more - when to eat, work, sleep, rise and so on. People also began to think of our brains running like "clockwork". Carr follows this example by stating, the internet promises to have far-reaching effects on our cognition. I agree, this will be no doubt the case.

Carr earlier uses examples of his own internet use to suggest some of the negative consequences of the internet on how we think and this is one of two major issues I have with the article, the second issue arises towards the end of the article and perhaps provides a nasty underlying problem with how Carr perceives education. I will discuss each of these in turn,

1. Carr bemoans that fact that he struggles to carry out deep reading anymore, that a decade or so of surfing the web means his ability to concentrate has diminished. Carr supports his own and other anecdotal evidence with research from scholars at University College London (why did he need the word scholars?). This research was based on a 5 year study which examined computer logs and it showed that people visiting sites exhibited a form of skimming activity, typically reading no more than a page or two of an article before bouncing off to another site. Sometimes they would save a long article, but there's no evidence they actually read it. They conclude - it is clear users are not reading online in the traditional sense. OK, nothing surprising there. But then comes this huge jump - It seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense. Hello? Sorry, where did that leap come from. If you were to look at my on-line use you would most certainly find a distinct lack of deep reading, mostly because I hate reading long sets of text off a screen. I use the internet to browse and search for articles which I actually usually print and do then set down and read. Just because there was no evidence that the articles downloaded weren't read, there was equally no evidence that they were. This is shonky stuff. Likewise, Carr's classic use of confusing correlation with cause. I use the internet, I don't deep read so much anymore, therefore the internet must have caused me to not deep read. Any researcher would tear that to shreads. There could be so many other factors that have influenced this, work changes, lifestyle, kids?, stress, getting older - who knows.

2. Here's my second major issue with the article - Carr states, I come from a tradition of Western Culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and "cathedral-like" structure of the highly educated and articulate personality - a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the west. Yikes, OK no wonder Carr is afraid of how the internet is affecting peoples thinking. Am I stretching it too much to suggest that it threatens the elite system of education we have had for decades that relies upon the success of few, at the expense of many? (I suggest that's what he means by cathedral, with the spire getting narrower at the top!). Does the internet all of a sudden make information accessible, when in the past it was only handed down by the more learned? Does thinking now require more emphasis on how we access information, evaluate it, synthesis, analyse and apply it - rather than memorise and regurgitate it? For those of you who have seen Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk, he says that one of the major problems with our education system is that it has been set up to essentially provide a pathway for people to go to university, as if this was the exclusive divine passage. The challenge is of course to be thinking of an education system that moves beyond this paradigm and celebrates other aspects of human endeavour and creativity.

Carr's article is not all bad, I do think it raises some interesting points. However, I think to fear that the internet in some way makes us less able to deep read, spreads us pancake thin and makes us stupid in the process, is simply just that, stupid.

(Maniakalani also comments on Carr's article).
Photo credit aims


MrWoody said...

i was stoopid anyway...
p.s. you're tagged


Heheboy said...

Good article Craig. It's all part of our evolution I guess. Wondering if being more self aware in modern times makes us as or more susceptible to being lemmings than in the past.

Manaiakalani said...

Interested to read your post and your take on this article in Atlantic. I was motivated to post about it last year too and got some interesting observations in the comments. I only hope he wrote that totally tongue-in-cheek as he successfully wound a few people up with the article. And the talk back crowd loved it and still quote it as gospel!