Information Democracy

Nick Carr wrote a piece a while ago about the pros and cons of easy information distribution of information. Specifically the double edged sword: GPS http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2008/01/looking_at_a_se.php

As GPS transceivers become common accessories in cars, the benefits have been manifold. Millions of us have been relieved of the nuisance of getting lost or, even worse, the shame of having to ask a passerby for directions.

But, as with all popular technologies, those dashboard maps are having some unintended consequences. In many cases, the shortest route between two points turns out to run through once-quiet neighborhoods and formerly out-of-the-way hamlets.

Scores of villages have been overrun by cars and lorries whose drivers robotically follow the instructions dispensed by their satellite navigation systems.

That’s the problem with the so-called transparency that’s resulting from instantly available digital information. When we all know what everyone else knows, it becomes ever harder to escape the pack.
There is, of course, much to be said for the easy access to information that the internet is allowing. Information that was once reserved for the rich, the well-connected, and the powerful is becoming accessible to all. That helps level the playing field, spreading economic and social opportunities more widely and fairly.

At the same time, though, transparency is erasing the advantages that once went to the intrepid, the dogged, and the resourceful … The commuter who pored over printed maps to find a short cut to work finds herself stuck in a jam with the GPS-enabled multitudes.

You have to wonder whether, as what was once opaque is made transparent, the bolder among us will lose the incentive to strike out for undiscovered territory. What’s the point when every secret becomes, in a real-time instant, common knowledge?

I don’t buy the argument.

It’s safe to assume that technological advances (like GPS) will lead to externalities (unintended side effects, both positive and negative). I live in a village which suffers every now and again from GPS-enabled truck drivers getting stuck in narrow lanes – so I can see where he’s coming from with this particular criticism. But it seems to me that Nick is arguing something more than just about side-effects. He seems to arguing that there is something in the very nature of the technological advances – “what was once opaque is made transparent” – that devalues us. That makes us less willing to strike out for something new.

Hogwash. What is the point of striking out for undiscovered territory? People will always do that just for the hell of it, in the hope of commercial gain or personal aggrandisement. For a number of reasons. What they are striking out for may be different to what their grand-parents considered undiscovered but they will continue nonetheless.

I like analogies. When I think of Nick Carr railing against GPS making it “too easy” to get from A to B I try to imagine similar scenarios. So how about going back 1000 years to the introduction of the abacus into Western Europe which made it far easier to do your maths than it would have been to multiply CLXI by XIV in Roman Numerals. In the same way that GPS democratises navigational data, the abacus democratised the ability to do mathematical calculations. That’s a good thing, right?

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.