On Nick Carr, Stupid, Google, Motor Cars and Cowpaths in the Brain

Nick Carr’s article “Is Google Making us Stupid?”  certainly provoked some brouhaha across the global interwebs. I read a lot of the commentary, particularly this before the article so I was surprised on finally reading the article to find that I really enjoyed it. Even though the question in the title was obviously intended to rile people.

How about asking: “Did the motor car make us lazy?”

You know what – the motor car probably did make some people lazy. And at the same time, for others  opened up more possibilities than ever before.

Overall it’s not a very useful question.  Nor is “Is Google making us stupid?” It may be a useful soundbite but it’s not a useful question.

The question is really asking two different things:
(a) Can use of google cause a fundamental change in the brain?
(b) If so, is this a change for the worse?

There seems to be a lot of agreement that (a) is possible. Nick Carr references some examples to demonstrate that the mind re-wires itself according to how it is used. “.. readers of ideograms, such as Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet”.

Here’s another example that suggests that the brain not only re-wires itself, but changes physical shape according to how it is used: Apparently the brains of London taxi drivers have been seen to physically change in response to their work.  

A study of London cabbies used brain scanners to show that a part of the brain linked with navigational skills is bigger in taxi drivers than in other members of the public. The scientists also found that the size of the hippocampus – which lies deep within the temporal lobes of the brain just behind the eyes – gets bigger in proportion to a taxi driver’s length of service.

Sounds strange when you first hear it but starts making sense in a “paving the cowpaths in your brain” sense. but makes sense. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about then check: http://www.classy.dk/log/archive/001522.html, and esp. the link from there to here: http://www.peterme.com/archives/000073.html)

So I buy part (a) – using google (i.e. the internet) can change the way my brain operates.

But (b) is far less clear. Assuming this kind of brain re-wiring has happened is it “bad” or “good”? Or “neither”. Or “both”. Look back at the motor car again. Was it able to effect changes in how people physically interact with the world? Yes. They were able to drive rather than walk. Was this change “bad” or “good”? How bad is it to be a bit “lazier” because you can drive rather than walk?

Nick seems to assume that “stupid” equates to skim reading rather than deep reading. I’m not so sure that intelligence is as simple as this. I have known plenty of people far smarter than me who spent their whole university lives skim reading books and yet apparently understanding them. 

Does Google encourage us to skim read? Possibly yes. But possibly, just possibly, faster and easier access to information might even help people reach better understanding better than was possible before. Just like the motor car enabled us to get from A to B more easily than ever before.

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