June 10, 2008|
At one point in my life, I considered myself to be an avid reader. Over the years, I have noticed that my reading habits have changed — my literature agenda includes only required assignments and the occasional pleasure novel or "must read" (Malcolm Gladwell, Levitt and Dubner, unread classics). I attributed most of this to a decline in free time, increased commitments and responsibilities, and you know, being a college student. After reading Nicholas Carr's article for the Atlantic on how the internet is not only changing the way we gather information, but probably changing the actual way our minds work, I was forced to explore the possibility that Google is at least partially to blame for my decreased appetite for literature.
In summary of his article (the very streamlining trend of the internet he describes), he compares the pre-internet methods of information gathering to the way information is sought after today. What used to take hours, maybe even days of research in the stacks of libraries is now readily available in a few clicks and keystrokes in the comfort of your office, home, or pocket. Carr goes on in his examination of this phenomena through a variety of different lenses; the psychology of mental development, an ominous comparison to Stanley Kubrick's unearthly futurist masterpiece, and philosophical points to ponder from both past and present.
As Carr touches upon, this is not the first time an exponential shift in access to information has occurred. Johann Gutenburg and his infamous press changed the history books — and for the first time, enabled the mass production of such texts. During this period in history, a shift from oral learning to a more textual style of information seeking occurred. There just weren't developmental and cognitive psychologists there to document it.
I am certainly no futurist (nor do I want to be haunted by the nightmares of my own imagination), but I do know that I embrace evolution of the collective human ability; as a result I tend to embrace technology readily. It comes as no surprise to me that in an age of pop-up advertisements, instant messaging, twitter, and wikis, my mental processes have probably been altered to accommodate for a different style of data exposure. One can call these "advantages" or "disadvantages", but I see it more as just plain differences.
What these differences will amount to in years, even generations from now is not incontestable, nor is it an easy task to judge them with a viewpoint only history can reveal. While there may be a decreasing number of Tolstoy scholars in years to come, I simultaneously ponder how many lives biotechnology will have saved, or how advances in quantum computing will have shaped the course of mankind.
To answer Carr's fundamental question: No. Google is making us different. What do you think? Is the decreased attention span and the shift away from long works of prose really a threat to human intellect? When does the streamlining of data gathering efficiency threaten individuality?
P.S. – Less pretentious posts to come. I promise .